Advanced Israeli drone tech eyes civilian use


Yaakov Lappin

An advanced immersive-technology Israeli drone company, which has recently won multiple tenders with the Israel Defense Forces and the U.S. Department of Defense, is eyeing new paths to enter the civilian security market, an executive has told JNS.

Xtend has built the Skylord Hunter mini-unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), developing it for the operational requirements of the Israeli Ministry of Defense and America’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO). It has also created two other types of advanced quadcopters.

Both militaries have placed multiple orders for the Skylord Hunter, particularly earmarking it for its ability to intercept hostile drones. On the border with Gaza, the IDF has used it to intercept some 2500 arson kites and balloons.

Xtend employs a virtual-reality (VR) headset and a single-handed controller—reminiscent of a game console—that operators use to point into the space around them and direct the drones to their expected locations.

The drones can deploy a net to capture enemy drones, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the payloads they can carry, according to Gadi Bar-Ner, general manager of civilian applications at Xtend.

Bar-Ner, who joined the company in July, was previously a chief commercial officer for a radar company, as well as sales and marketing director at the Airborne Division of Israeli defense company Elbit Systems. A reserve major in the Israeli Air Force, he joined the Xtend company that was created by an eclectic mix of founders.

The co-founders are Aviv Shapira, an aerospace engineer and serial entrepreneur; his brother Matteo Shapira, a computer-graphics industry leader; Rubi Liani, a systems integration expert who served in the Israeli Navy for 12 years and who founded the Israeli Drone Racing League (DRL); and Adir Tubi, an aerospace engineer who served in the IAF for seven years.

Previously, the Shapira brothers co-founded Replay Technologies, a company that employed high-resolution cameras and computed intensive graphics to enable viewers to experience sporting events from any angle; it was purchased for $175 million by Intel in 2016.

“The Israeli Defense Ministry and the Department of Defense have jumped on this technology early on since they understood its advantages in drone interceptions,” said Bar-Ner. Both countries began investing money in further Xtend research and development programs.

He told JNS that his goal is take Xtend’s revolutionary technology and make it applicable for civilian use. While Xtend is currently selling its products to governments—mostly, to militaries—it also wants to begin selling to businesses as well.

“Currently, our main focus is defense and elite security market, such as homeland security, SWAT teams and border protection,” he said.

‘The future of security’

In a video produced by Xtend and seen by JNS, one of its drones acts as a full-fledged member of a shopping-mall civilian guard team, patrolling the complex, responding to suspicious activities, alerting human guards and instructing an intruder to remain in place.

“That video is a vision of how we see the future of security in a way that integrates our capability,” said Bar-Ner. While this is not yet a product, “it is based on technology that Xtend already has today and displays what the company can do,” he explained.

Bar-Ner defined Xtend’s core vision for both the defense and civilian sectors as enabling “every person, no matter how qualified, the ability to fly a drone in the most complex missions with almost zero learning time.”

Its drones can deliver packages from one military battalion to another, move or detonate roadside bombs, and conduct critical functions in hostage or active shooter situations.

The technology is based on Xtend’s operator interface, allowing “anyone to accurately point into space; we translate this pointing to a location for the drone to move to. It is part of our artificial-intelligence machine-vision technology,” stated Bar-Ner.

The Skylord Hunter drones are operational in a number of special IDF and US Military units.

The drone’s indoor flight capability makes it “an actual team member for the first time,” said Bar-Ner, adding that this is the company’s next area of focus.

“The drone will be capable of autonomously flying to the location of triggered alarms,” he said. “They will not require expert drone pilots.”

The U.S. Department of Defense has received 200 systems so far for operational deployment in combat arenas.

‘360 degrees of freedom’

The Skylord family consists of three systems: The Skylord Hunter is the first member, and the Skylord Wolverine—the heaviest quadcopter in the Skylord family—is the second. The Wolverine comes with a robotic arm for tactical forces. This allows soldiers to deliver packages other units, creating a level of freedom that was “previously unimaginable,” said Bar-Ner.

The third drone, called Xtender is the smallest in the family—the size of a tablet—for indoor surveillance.

The principle for operating these systems is the same as some video game consoles in which the controller moves their hand, directing the drone to its next location. When a trigger is pulled, the drone can conduct a variety of actions.

“We developed 360 degrees of freedom,” said Bar-Ner. “When you move your hand, we translate that into a two-dimensional screen placed on the eyes of the operator for a virtual reality experience. In Xtend’s control system, every combat soldier who wishes to fly inside a building can skip the four to six months of training it would have taken to do this; we do this training in one hour. Minutes later, the operator is flying the drone underneath tables.”

Xtend is developing the option of placing a variety of payloads on its drones, such as loud speaker, taser guns and tear-gas canisters.

Yet aside from the payloads, the core of the company’s technology—the unique interface between the operator and the drone’s environment, allowing human and machine to merge—is what is driving it forward.

“Our name, Xtend, is about extending reality—not just seeing reality via drones but also interacting with it, influencing what is happening in the next room, or the other side of the world. The same technology that can be used to influence what is happening inside a building while the operator stands outside can also be used to influence events on the other side of the planet,” said Bar-Ner in reference to long-distance remote operating possibilities.

The practical possibilities are seemingly endless. In fact, Xtend’s drones recently flew coronavirus test kits to onboard crews on a ship outside of Haifa to help them dock.

The technology is likely to make a landing in civilian settings in the coming future.



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