El­bit Sys­tems speeds up the race to fly mil­i­tary drones in civil airspace

Jerusalem Post - - NEWS - • By TOVA CO­HEN

Is­raeli de­fense firm El­bit Sys­tems un­veiled a 1.6 tonne un­manned air­craft ve­hi­cle (UAV) on Thurs­day de­signed to fly in airspace cur­rently re­served for pi­loted civil­ian planes as a race heats up to de­ploy mil­i­tary drones out­side com­bat zones.

The move came hours af­ter a US ri­val staged a land­mark transat­lantic demon­stra­tion flight, as arms firms vie to de­velop drones with flex­i­bil­ity to be used in civil­ian-con­trolled airspace – a drive that could spawn fu­ture tech­nol­ogy for un­manned air­lin­ers.

Chang­ing se­cu­rity con­cerns fol­low­ing the dis­man­tling of Is­lamic State and ris­ing geopo­lit­i­cal ten­sions have caused Euro­pean coun­tries to shift de­fense ef­forts from far-away con­flicts to home­land se­cu­rity, re­sult­ing in de­mand for drones that can be safely in­te­grated into civil­ian airspace to, for ex­am­ple, mon­i­tor bor­der cross­ings, El­bit of­fi­cials said.

A ver­sion of El­bit’s Her­mes 900 Star­Liner is be­ing as­sem­bled for the Swiss armed forces and is sched­uled to be de­liv­ered in 2019 in a deal worth $200 mil­lion.

“We are get­ting a lot of in­ter­est from other cus­tomers for the same con­fig­u­ra­tion...from all over the world,” Elad Aharon­son, gen­eral man­ager of El­bit’s ISTAR di­vi­sion, told Reuters.

The Star­Liner, be­ing launched ahead of next week’s Farn­bor­ough Air­show, is de­rived from the Her­mes 900 op­er­ated by Brazil for sur­veil­lance dur­ing the 2014 World Cup. That op­er­a­tion re­quired clos­ing off airspace to civil­ian air­craft, some­thing the Star­Liner, with tech­nol­ogy to de­tect air­craft and avoid col­li­sions, will not re­quire, El­bit said.

The drone is com­pli­ant with NATO cri­te­ria, qual­i­fy­ing it to be in­te­grated into civil­ian airspace, El­bit said. It will still need ap­proval of the var­i­ous civil avi­a­tion au­thor­i­ties.

The Star­Liner has been fly­ing in civil­ian airspace in Is­rael over the past year.

Cal­i­for­nia-based Gen­eral Atomics’ MQ-9B Sky­Guardian – a ver­sion of the widely used Preda­tor fam­ily – com­pleted its At­lantic cross­ing on Wednes­day ahead of the world’s largest mil­i­tary air­show at RAF Fairford in western Eng­land.

El­bit ex­pects to re­ceive ap­proval from the Euro­pean Avi­a­tion Safety Agency (EASA) for its own prod­uct in the com­ing months. EASA was not avail­able for com­ment. Is­rael’s drone ex­ports in 2005-2012 to­talled $4.6 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to con­sul­tancy Frost & Sullivan. They reached $525m. in 2016, ac­count­ing for 7 per­cent of Is­rael’s de­fense ex­ports, de­fense min­istry data show.

Drones are a ma­jor source of rev­enue for El­bit and state-owned Is­rael Aero­space In­dus­tries. The United States and Is­rael dom­i­nate the in­dus­try but face grow­ing com­pe­ti­tion from cheaper Chi­nese drones.

US mil­i­tary drone mak­ers are vy­ing for a larger share of the global mar­ket, which mar­ket re­searcher the Teal Group fore­casts will rise from $2.8b in 2016 to $9.4b in 2025.

Fly­ing along­side air­lin­ers would ex­pand the hori­zons of drones orig­i­nally de­vel­oped for mil­i­tary sur­veil­lance. But it would also call for ad­vanced sen­sors and soft­ware that could even­tu­ally fil­ter back into com­mer­cial use as de­vel­op­ers look at sin­gle-pi­lot and ul­ti­mately pilot­less cargo or pas­sen­ger jets.

The Star­Liner can reach 30,000 ft. – the al­ti­tude of some com­mer­cial jets – and pho­to­graph an 80 sq.km. area, El­bit said.

“Some cus­tomers would like to use the sys­tem to gather in­tel­li­gence,” El­bit CEO Bezhalel Mach­lis said. “An­other ex­am­ple can be for home­land se­cu­rity ap­pli­ca­tions, to fly above an area and make sure it is mon­i­tored against ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties.”

The drone can be equipped with radar, cam­eras to take video and still pic­tures, and sig­nals in­tel­li­gence to an­a­lyze elec­tronic sig­nals.

“This is a ma­jor step to­wards un­manned civil­ian planes,” Aharon­son said, adding the main bar­rier to such air­craft would be psy­cho­log­i­cal rather than tech­ni­cal.


(Orel Co­hen/Reuters)

EM­PLOY­EES CHECK an El­bit Sys­tems Ltd. Her­mes 900 un­manned aerial ve­hi­cle (UAV) at the com­pany’s drone fac­tory in Re­hovot last month.

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