For UAV geeks, Israel really is the promised land. No country is more advanced in the use of UAVs, small and large, and the second Lebanon war was a state-of-the-art example of ubiquitous eye-in-the-sky presence. I'm in Tel Aviv today, and I took the opportunity to hang out with the best of the bunch. Here's a brief report.
The picture at right is me at an Air Force base near Tel Aviv with an IAI Heron.(minus its single or twin dome camera assemblies). A few cool things I learned hanging out with a combat UAV squadron this morning:
Israel has UAVs in the air 24/7, mostly on its borders. Unlike the piloted Air Force squadrons, where most flights are training, 90% of UAV missions are "operational", meaning that they're actually tracking targets and watching for bad guys.
They've been working to eliminate "flying" altogether. The UAVs take and land themselves, and "R/C" piloting skills, which were once prized, are now discouraged. It simplifies the training, lowers costs, and mimimizes human errors. Often the joysticks are linked only to the camera, and the aircraft is only guided by clicking on a map.
Another advantage of a small country (about the size of New Jersey): all the UAVs above hand-launch size are launched from Air Force bases like this one and communicate with the ground with direct radio links. No need for satellites. They can usually get an aerial camera on any spot along the boarder within three minutes. Aerial imagery is shared between Army and Air Force in real time, so there are few of the intramural battles the US has over chain of command and airspace control.
I then went to a small town outside Tel Aviv to a converted barn to visit a small private UAV maker, Top I Vision, which make some of the best gyro-stabilized pan-tilt camera assemblies in the world (along with a lovely hand-launched, UAV, the Casper 250). The difference between a UAV system costing $200,000 and our own $1,000 systems suddenly became clear as I toured their R&D facility. Everything was hand-made and of top quality, from the fiberglass, carbon fiber or kevlar body parts to the the machined gears and motors that make up the custom camera actuators (no shaky commercial servos, like those that we use). That's the difference between pros and us amateurs.
The result is what amounts to a steadycam in the sky. You point the camera at a target and a combination of GPS, barometric altitude sensors and incredibly accurate encoders in the pan-tilt assembly will tell you the exact lat-lon of what you're looking at (accurate enough to give to artillery). You steer the camera, and the plane will figure out how to steer itself to give you the optimal viewing angle.
Here's a video of the UAV in action:
And here's a picture of the CEO, in front of one their latest birds.