Low-tech drones give every IDF commander an eye in the sky

Low-tech drones give every IDF commander an eye in the sky

Small, collapsible UAVs distributed throughout army; models with night-vision in use by Combat Intelligence Corps

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Company commanders in the IDF’s Infantry, Border Defense and Combat Intelligence Corps now have access to a camera-equipped drone, giving them access to immediate intelligence once only available to special forces, the army said on Monday.

The process of delivering the drones and training soldiers on how to use them took several months, but has been completed and the drone systems are now being used operationally, the army said.

A ‘Matrice’ drone, with night-vision capabilities. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Infantry and border defense units operate a simple, collapsible drone, known as a “Mavic,” while the Combat Intelligence Corps operates a powerful, heavier version, known as the “Matrice.”

The Matrice, in addition to being able to fly in more inclement weather, also comes equipped with night vision capabilities, which the Mavic does not, the army said.

The Mavic will be used by the army’s five infantry brigades — Givati, Nahal, Paratroopers, Kfir and Golani — as well as the Border Defense Force, notably the mixed-gender combat battalions — Caracal, Lions of the Jordan, Bardelas and Lavi of the Valley.

Illustrative. A Mavic drone, manufactured by the Chinese company DJI. (ThoroughlyReviewed/ Flickr/ CC BY 2.0)

The drones are not military-grade. In fact, for about a thousand bucks, you too can be the proud owner of the same kind of drone as an IDF combat company. The IDF is purchasing the drones from DJI, a Chinese company.

The connection between the drone and the controller is not completely encrypted, so the devices can only be used in non-classified missions, an army officer involved in the project said earlier this year.

But while they are not on the cutting edge of technology, these off-the-shelf drones will give relatively low-level commanders access to previously unimaginable amounts of information, Peretz said.

“It’s a capability that they can really use,” Cpt. Nadav Peretz, Head of the Drones Department in the Combat Intelligence Collection Corps, told The Times of Israel in June.

“This is something that a few years ago no one thought would have existed,” he added.

Take, for example, a common occurrence in the West Bank: violent protests.

Israeli security forces clash with Palestinian demonstrators during a violent protest in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners outside Nablus on May 26, 2017. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)
Israeli security forces clash with Palestinian demonstrators during a violent protest in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners outside Nablus, on May 26, 2017. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

These are often just a few dozen Palestinian teenagers burning tires and throwing rocks at troops, but can also escalate into something larger.

Previously, a company commander has only binoculars and field reports in order to calculate how demonstrators were spread out, how many people were there and if more were coming. But with a drone, commanders can now make such calculations with more information at their fingertips.

The military already had a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, both large and small. The Combat Intelligence Corps also deploys large balloons that are equipped with cameras and other sensors.

But these types of assets are not typically available to commanders in the field, due to the comparatively small number of them and the bureaucratic steps required in order to access to them.

In this March 7, 2007 photo, the Eitan drone, also known as the Heron TP flies during a display at the Palmachim Air Force Base in Israel. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
The Eitan drone, also known as the Heron TP, flies during a display at the Palmachim Air Force Base in Israel, March 7, 2007. (AP/Ariel Schalit/File)

Now company commanders are “no longer be dependent upon the logistics” and can see entire field of action “within a couple minutes,” the captain said.

The combat intelligence officer compared the jump from binoculars to drone to that of moving from a simple telephone to a smartphone.

The company commander will not operate the drone himself, but will have a team of three soldiers beneath him who are trained to operate the platform.

One soldier will use a controller and tablet to actually fly the drone, while a second will act as a spotter to ensure it is not entering into an area where it could get stuck or shot down. The third soldier acts as a back-up.

The Mavic model weighs approximately 700 grams (1.6 pounds) and folds up to fit into a pouch, which can be strapped to a soldier’s leg. Its battery allows for 20 minutes of flight time, and each drone comes with multiple batteries, allowing for hours of time in the air.

The Matrice, which the combat intelligence battalions operate, is larger, weighing in at about 2.4 kilograms (5.3 pounds), but can still be easily carried by one soldier. Its heavier weight allows it to fly in worse weather, and a larger battery lets it stay in the air for twice as long as the Mavic. It too comes with extra batteries to grant it hours of total flight time.

Zano Nano-Drone (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Zano Nano-Drone (Courtesy)

Drones have been commercially available for years — “You can buy one at a gas station,” Peretz noted — but the cameras on early, affordable models were not at the level that the army demanded.

Now, the price and quality are “in balance,” which prompted the decision to purchase the off-the-shelf drones for company commanders, Peretz said.

The IDF, however, pays a higher price than your average consumer, in the “tens of thousands of shekels,” Peretz said, as it is buying not only the drone itself, but also tablets to control them, replacement parts, maintenance, and other services from DJI.

Peretz would not say how many drones the IDF would be purchasing, but said it was in the hundreds, putting the total cost for this drone project into the millions of shekels.

Notably, this is only an interim measure. The army is in the process of working with various defense contractors to construct a drone known as the “Tzur,” specifically for the IDF’s needs, Peretz said, but the effort is still in the preliminary stages, with no final deadline in place.

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