Flying high at the Israeli ‘drone school’

Pilots from all over the world are converging on Elbit’s headquarters to receive training in remotely operating the company’s sophisticated drones.It was bound to happen. Israel’s Elbit Systems, one of the world’s top makers of unmanned aerial vehicles, has provided …

Pilots from all over the world are converging on Elbit’s headquarters to receive training in remotely operating the company’s sophisticated drones.It was bound to happen. Israel’s Elbit Systems, one of the world’s top makers of unmanned aerial vehicles, has provided military and homeland security forces worldwide with their advanced UAV systems. But what happens once those UAVs, recognized as among the most innovative in the world, are delivered to the customer?

Elbit’s onboard systems, like the Hermes family of UAVs for high end tactical UAV missions, along with the Skylark UAV series for close range tactical missions, are taking on many of the complex challenges previously performed solely by manned aircraft, but it doesn’t happen instantly. A little more sophisticated than learning how to drive a Subaru, learning your way around a robotic spy plane consists of extensive research and knowledge.

That’s why in addition to Elbit’s UAV customers, pilots from around the world have been converging at the Elbit headquarters in Haifa to receive training in remotely operating the sophisticated drones.

According to a report in Defense News, “What began as an ad-hoc service” to Elbit’s UAV customers “has evolved in recent years into a multidisciplinary training school.”

“Many students come to us with no prior experience or knowledge of basic principles of aviation and electronics. Our preparatory syllabus is designed to fill those gaps,” Itai Toren, Elbit’s director for UAV programs, told Defense News.

In addition to the basic operators and maintenance certifications, the Elbit school offers more specialized training in air vehicle avionics, ground system electronics, and image exploitation and analysis. Even, non-flight professionals can get in on the act with a 10-day to one-month preparatory course designed to bring students up to requisite cognitive and operational speed.

To man the school, Elbit brought on a staff consisting primarily of reservists in the Israel Air Force specializing in UAV operations, payloads and mission planning.

Over the last two years, the school has certified dozens of operators and maintenance personnel prior to deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Elbit was unwilling to provide specific information on national training delegations, but those certified include forces from the Australian and Canadian armies, Defense News reported.

The Hermes certification generally involves one week of classroom training and one to two weeks of simulated training, with the remainder of the program dedicated to live UAV operations.

Unique to the Hermes system, Elbit executives here say, is the ability to control two UAVs at the same time from the same ground control station.

“[Students] get real grades, since we believe it’s much better for them to know where they stand than to be politically correct,” he said. “There have been cases where we’ve flunked people… in coordination with their commander, of course,” said Toren.

The Skylark system has been operational for a few years, and according to Elbit, is “currently deployed in the global war on terror in Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Designed for “close range, beyond-the-next hill, counter-terror missions,” the little Skylark can be carried, launched and operated by a single soldier, covering an area within a range of seven miles day or night, said the company.

In 2005, the Australian MOD selected the Skylark to support the deployment of Australian forces in Iraq. Six systems were procured and deployed to Southern Iraq. In September 2006 Thales Canada announced it was selected by the Department of National Defense Land Forces to deliver a mini-UAV system based on Elbit’s Skylark technology.

Last year, the Skylark II, a newer and larger model of the Skylark, received Popular Science’s ’2006 Best of What’s New’ Award in the Aviation and Space category. The Skylark II, which is operated by a crew of just two, expands on its predecessor with a wider range of 35 miles, and longer time in the air.

So, it appears for the near future at least, Elbit’s ‘drone school’ is going to be more popular than ever.

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