Who pilots Israel's drones?

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A glimpse behind the scenes of the Israeli military unit that operates the IDF's ''Sky Rider'' drones.

It may come as no surprise to you that at any given moment, dozens of drones are up in the air over Gaza, on surveillance and reconnaissance missions, providing the fighters on the ground with intelligence on what is going on in the battlefield with accurate artillery targeting data. However, you will probably be surprised to learn that it is not any technology enthusiast/soldier sitting in the “pit” (the underground high command center of operations) at the Ministry of Defense headquarters in Tel Aviv who operates the drones. In fact, it’s well-trained Artillery Corps fighters who are operating the drones on the battlefield.

“Our men are neither engineers nor geeks; they do not have practical experience at flying drones either. They are not here for the sake of technology. Rather, they are people who know the area, and who live and breathe the battlefield,” said Major A., vice commander of the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) “Sky Rider” Artillery Corps Unit, in an interview with the Israeli business daily Calcalist

The Sky Rider, or Skylark (its brand name), is a miniature unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed for short-range surveillance missions. It is operated by a team of four fighters on the ground, who launch and land it anywhere, and under any weather conditions. It can operate in altitudes up to 1 kilometer (about 0.62 mile) and fly as far as distance of 15 kilometers (about 9.3 miles), even under unfavorable visibility or wind conditions. It is equipped with an optical camera and a thermal sensor.

The fighters carry the UAV on their backs for long distances — a notable achievement, considering the total weight of the system, which amounts to some 50 kilograms (110 pounds). They can assemble the tiny aircraft, which weighs only about 6.5 kilos (14.33 pounds), on demand and launch it into the air in a few minutes. The Sky Rider can stay aloft for roughly three hours, without being operated or guided by the fighters on the ground. And the commanders in the battlefield can thus watch the secure UAV transmissions in real time. This can be accomplished even through the so-called “green wave” — a tiny military tablet attached to the battalion commander’s vest which makes it possible for him to receive at any given moment intelligence on what's happening “over the hill,” said Major A.

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Dozens of teams subordinate to Major A. are operating along the border with Gaza, in collaboration with battalion commanders, to provide them with real-time field intelligence. The drones may be used to help the Artillery Corps to improve targeting and to protect the fighters against volleys of enemy fire, as well as from friendly shooting, and they may also serve to locate tunnels.

During the Second Lebanon War, the technology's allegedly cutting off the commander from the battlefield was widely criticized

“We are not sitting in the ‘pit’ in the center of the country. We venture inside, into the battlefield, along with the battalion commander. There is no separation. The IDF has learned the lessons and drawn the conclusions. The commanders spent years getting to know the Sky Rider. After dozens of exercises, lectures and demonstrations, we are now ready to incorporate new systems and capabilities.” One of the new capabilities referred to by Major A. is the ability of the drone to mark targets for the guided Tamuz missiles of the Artillery Corps — this, by means of a laser beam. The Tamuz (guided missile system), in use since the 1980s, allows the fighters on the ground to provide accurate, marker-guided volleys up to a range of 25 kilometers (just over 15.5 miles).

Dozens of Sky Rider teams are deployed along the Gaza border. They have been positioned in the area at the outset of the campaign, a few weeks ago. “There are no home leaves,” says Major A. “Yet, the morale is high. Everyone is highly motivated, even the reservists, most of whom are currently in the midst of their university exam period. They have all responded to the call and showed up, and nobody is complaining.”

Each team consists of four members — a commander, a fighter responsible for launching the drone, another who is responsible for landing the drone and analyzing the data collected and a backup fighter. These teams are not operating independently, but rather collaborate with the various IDF forces, whether armored units, reconnaissance units or paratroopers.

Major A. said he carefully selected his fighters from among the most prestigious training courses in the IDF, noting that during training, the emphasis was put on interpersonal relations rather than on mere technological competence. They all undergo infantry training, to acquaint them with ground combat doctrine. “They should know how to work side by side with the fighters on the ground, and the officers under my command need to learn how to wield authority as commanders and, at the same time, refrain from interfering with the work done by the fighters in the battlefield. I am looking for officers who are not ego-driven — for those who understand both the area and their job.”

You ascribe much importance to human relationships; but what about the technological know-how?

“They are not necessarily engineers or mathematical-minded people. Quite the opposite, most of my reservists are students studying liberal arts. The system is pretty simple to operate, and any 12-year-old child can learn in but a few hours how to operate the Sky Rider. All you have to do is point it at the chosen direction, and [once launched] the drone will take photos of any site you are interested in.”

The Sky Rider Artillery Corps unit is relatively new, having been set up in 2010, following several years of deliberations and close cooperation between the IDF and Elbit Systems Ltd. on the development of the mini UAV. At present, it is used by the IDF in nearly every mission or large-scale military operation, including artillery firing and the arrest of suspects. “We are there at almost every arrest event, in every operational sector and along every border,” Major A. proudly said.

There are quite a number of civilian drones today, lighter and cheaper than the Sky Rider. What do you think about this technology?

“I am not familiar with the civilian technology. However, I do know that our mini UAV provides a stable picture, under all weather conditions, at altitudes where it cannot be seen or heard. It is fully automatic — once it is launched, it can operate independently of any human intervention.”

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Found in: technology, palestine, military, israel defense forces, israel, gaza strip
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