In two unmarked warehouses in Petah Tikva, Airobotics, an Israeli start-up emerging from stealth mode is assembling, testing and developing an autonomous drone system.
It has experience at the helm: Ran Krauss, chief executive and co-founder of the company, was the first Israeli to get a commercial pilot's licence for drones, the first to receive a commercial operating licence for a drone company (which meant he actually wrote the manual for the Civil Aviation Authority) and he counts at least a thousand hours of personal experience flying drones.
He has operated two previous companies in the area. Airobotics has raised $28.5 million from investors including Noam Bardin, founder of Google's Waze mapping service, and BlueRun Ventures. It already counts Israel Chemicals (ICL) as a client, one of the 10 biggest companies on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, as well as a global technology company Krauss has declined to name.
They are all interested in Airobotics’ quadcopters – drones weighing about 15lb and measuring 179cm from end to end, with four arms and a propeller attached to each.
Completely autonomous, they can be programmed to take off, conduct a surveillance flight and monitor defined areas of land, report back any anomalies, return to base and park themselves. A robotic arm on the landing pad replaces the drone’s batteries and any payload, readying it for another mission.
The drones are equipped with mapping and photographic capabilities and are built to integrate other technologies such as infrared imaging.
Israel Chemical's manager of the phosphate division, Yakov Kahlon, says the drones have already allowed the company to cut down the measuring time of stockpiles from six days to just one. ICL plans to start testing the drones for surveillance and maintenance, having the autonomous flying machine send a wireless alert to a human team should it detect anything unusual.
Airobotics exists in a fast-growing market and has at least 25 Israeli competitors. Grand View Research, a US- based consultancy, has forecast that the commercial drone market will grow fourfold to $2.1 billion by 2022 from about $550 million in 2014. Radiant Insights, another US market research group, expects greater growth – to $4.8 billion by 2021, from what it says was $609 million in 2014.
As long ago as 1973, Israel was developing unpiloted surveillance drones; 13 years later it developed a medium-sized reconnaissance drone with the US, consultancy and accounting firm Deloitte Israel said in a recent report.
From 2010-2014, Israel produced 61 per cent of all unmanned aerial vehicles exported worldwide, according to market data portal Statista.
"Israel is a very good place to develop drones," says Krauss, many of whose employees formerly worked for the country's top defence companies: Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries and Elbit Systems.
“In Israel, the hardware experts for the defence industries are top of the line. If you try to find a good hardware engineer in Silicon Valley, it’s difficult.”
Krauss’s first company in this sector, Bladeworx, offered aerial cinematography and backup in the 2014 oil spill off the coast of Eilat.
The second, ParaZero, makes ballistic parachutes for unmanned aerial vehicles.
Both were founded in 2012, although only ParaZero continues to operate today.
While start-ups like Airobotics, with advanced technology and a focus on the commercial market, may have an initial advantage of traditional military UAV manufacturers, the headstart may not last long.
"Once the military companies, usually very large with deals in the billions of dollars, shift into the civilian and commercial markets, smaller companies will be at risk of their business being taken away or just being acquired," says Lior Yekoutieli, head of Global Technology Alliances at Deloitte Israel.
Meanwhile, Airobotics expects to have 25 systems in operation by the end of the year and eventually it intends to start manufacturing and assembling in Asia. – (Bloomberg)
Real-world emergencies: Europe’s first responders learn how to use drones to save lives
In a deserted grassy field on the outskirts of Copenhagen, Steve McLinden was struggling to land his drone as it teetered 200ft above and barely in sight, battling winds of almost 10mph.
McLinden, grimaced, concentrating on a tablet screen connected to his drone handset and monitoring the aircraft’s progress through its onboard camera.
As the device pitched violently during its descent, McLinden expertly flicked at his controls to make last-second adjustments before landing the drone almost perfectly on the bull’s eye of a bright red mat placed on the far side of the field.
“It just takes a little bit of practice,” McLinden, a firefighter, joked.
McLinden is a member of a group of middle-aged emergency workers taking part in a trial to jump-start the use of unmanned aircraft by Europe’s emergency services.
The goal is to give the region a headstart over the United States and elsewhere in using drones to tackle real-world emergencies.
The “drone school” builds on Europe’s worldwide lead in giving public groups and companies relatively free rein to experiment with unmanned aircraft. If everything goes as planned, the project’s backers hope government agencies in Europe and farther afield can piggyback on the experiences, helping to transform drones from recreational toys to lifesaving tools.
“For us, this technology is a game- changer,” says McLinden, who travelled to Copenhagen for a three-day training course with two colleagues from the Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service.
They will start offering 24/7 drone support – allowing colleagues, for example, to monitor accidents from 300 feet above – across central Wales later this month.
“Drones aren’t going to replace what we do,” McLinden added, “but anything that we can do to give our crews an advantage, that’s great.”
The three days of training in Copenhagen were the beginning of a six-month trial, the world’s largest and most widespread experiment with unmanned aircraft to potentially save lives.
Four teams from Britain, Denmark, Iceland and Ireland are taking part in the programme, organised by the European Emergency Number Association, a non-profit trade body and supported by DJI, the Chinese drone-maker. – (New York Times News Service)