A new joint Israeli and U.S. program aims to develop an augmented reality based control for unmanned systems to engage in small drone-on-drone warfare.
The new pilot program — led by Israel's Directorate of Defense Research and Development and the U.S. Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office — is based around the Israeli company Xtend's Skylord counter-UAV system.
The program has thus far produced a drone system with an immersive interface that protects troops from various aerial threats, according to the Israeli Ministry of Defense. A user can wear goggles to see through the lens of the drone, and using a hand-held controller, can then fly the drone to observe a threat and use the drone's hard kill ability to knock down the UAV threat.
"Using an augmented reality (AR) device and single-handed controller, a military operator may employ the ... system to control the drone and perform complex tasks remotely, with great ease and precision. Its interface enables the operator to immerse themselves or 'step into' a remote reality and engage targets effectively yet safely," according to a statement from Xtend. "The system's capabilities have been demonstrated in Israel, with confirmed interceptions of incendiary devices flown over the Gaza border by terrorist organizations."
Xtend, an Israeli startup, uses augmented reality from the world of computer gaming and applies it to drone solutions, including countering UAV threats. It received support from an accelerator initiative supported by Tel Aviv University and the Israeli Security Agency, media outlet Calcalist reported in 2018.
As part of the pilot program, several dozen Skylord systems will be employed by U.S. troops, the MoD said.
"We met the company and began to see what we can do regarding challenges on the battlefield which we had here in Israel," Lt. Col. Menachem Landau, who leads the UAV branch in the Directorate of Defense Research and Development, said in a statement to Defense News. "We are developing several capabilities with this technology, instead of sending the soldier into the building, sending the drone into the building [for instance], to get information."
Over the last several years Israel has faced increasing threats from small commercial drones and incendiary balloons launched by militants in the Gaza Strip. Landau said this technology proved successful at overcoming the gaps and difficulties inherent in trying to stop these threats. The project moved forward with American support, as the country was looking for a solution to such threats.
Landau indicated that each party involved has its own challenges. For Israel, it is evaluating the system and testing how best to operate the new technology, including whether it should ruggedize the system to meet higher military specifications.
Landau noted that as some solutions are vulnerable to electronic warfare technology such as jamming, countering threats with "kinetic solutions" is needed. Xtend's system enables the user to fly the drone into the incoming threat. This requires detection, either visually by the unit in the field or using guidance from a command-and-control system. The goal is to hand over to the machine as much of the job as possible — including piloting the drone while the human user makes decisions.
The U.S. and Israel will individually decide what approach works best for their respective forces, Landau explained.
Israel's MoD said in a news release that this operational pilot program is the first step towards the widespread deployment of Israeli smart systems to U.S. military forces, enabling them to perform complex tasks in the modern battlefield while minimizing risk. "It is also one of the most significant and successful areas of cooperation between the DDR&D and its American partners, highlighting the crucial and extraordinary relations between our respective defense establishments," the ministry said added.
Details on how many systems might be eventually acquired or potential sales figures were not provided.
Skylord is one of a plethora of systems developed in Israel to counter UAV threats. Other efforts include Elbit Systems' ReDrone, Israel Aerospace Industries' Drone Guard, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems' Drone Dome and D-Fend Solutions' EnforceAir. D-Fend Solutions is also working with the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office, which has taken an interest in Israeli startups in recent years. Israeli-made Smart Shooter was chosen by the U.S. Army as a counter-UAV solution in June.
The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act supported U.S.-Israel cooperation on counter-UAV solutions, similar to larger joint programs that support air defense systems such as Iron Dome. There has also been increasing support for sharing research and development findings between the two allies.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.