Hamas has likely set thousands of traps for Israeli forces entering Gaza, from ambushes to IED-laced doorways, roofs and walkways. Small drones may face them first.
Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) armored vehicles have already made tentative forays into the northern end of the Gaza Strip but entering the confines of Gaza City will require IDF soldiers (regular or special forces) to dismount and directly face Hamas, its coordinated fire and rigged explosives.
A variety of small artificial intelligence-enabled drones could make that daunting task somewhat less deadly. Mini UAVs including Elbit Systems’ LANIUS, Spear’s NINOX 40, and Xtend’s Wolverine can conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) in tight quarters in outdoor and indoor spaces at minimum altitudes.
They integrate sensors with AI identification and classification capability, able to detect life, armed adversaries, and weapons stations. Though remotely-operated, they have substantial degrees of autonomy and the ability to function in GPS/GNSS-denied environments, places where line-of-sight satellite signals are blocked.
The ability to carry weapons, act as kamikazes with explosive charges or physically pick-up detected improvised explosive devices (IEDs) for clearance operations and disposal is resident in these drones as well.
I attempted to confirm whether they are in operation with IDF forces through the Pentagon’s Irregular Warfare Technical Support Directorate (which partners with Israel among others) but was not able to get a response prior to publication. However, all three of the above UAVs are designed and produced by Israel-based companies.
Elbit Systems’ palm-sized LANIUS has been described as a drone racing-inspired micro-suicide UAV. It can be deployed by individual operators or from the company’s Legion-X robotic mothership UAV. Its relatively short seven-minute flight time is offset by high maneuverability, a top speed of 45 mph and a 5.28 ounce payload.
A company brochure describes LANIUS as a loitering munition that maneuvers close to a target, where it “uses video analytics to determine entry points into a structure, map the inside of unknown buildings, performing simultaneous localization and mapping, and identify combatants and non-combatants among the building occupants.”
The system is equipped to “defeat threats with explosive payloads with man-in-the-loop control.” It can also carry non-lethal payloads and its advanced AI algorithm supports a collision-avoidance capability for maneuvering inside tight spaces.
LANUIS could serve both ISR and mapping functions, helping IDF forces quickly build situational awareness of threats in a city block or inside buildings without going into harm’s way. It could simultaneously function as an anti-personnel munition, neutralizing Hamas forces before potential ambushes and break down Hamas crossfire positions.
Spear’s Ninox 40 MT (micro-tactical) is a hand-launched encapsulated drone that deploys from a handheld 40mm tube or grenade launcher. Weighing less than half a pound, it has up to 35 minutes of endurance and a 25-mile (40 km) range. It’s intended to be carried by dismounted soldiers and its autonomous ease of operation via tablet requires little training.
It is an ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance) drone designed to rapidly develop battlefield awareness in open or urban settings it can also funnel information to command-control units.
The Ninox family includes baseline systems in 103 mm and 66 mm ballistic sizes as well. The small UAVs feature day/night camera, AI-driven computer vision and automatic target tracking, homing algorithms, combined GPS/GPNSS and inertial measurement unit (IMU) navigation. They employ a commercial off-the-shelf, secured two-way datalink, and embedded mesh networking and swarm capabilities.
The 40MT can be used in conjunction with Spear’s VIPER hovering-loitering munition, which offers real-time aerial location, tracking and attack on targets. Spear demonstrated the Ninox 40 to U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, SOCOM and DHS
The Israeli Navy reportedly tested the Ninox 103 in 2022, increasing the likelihood that both the 103 and its 40MT cousin are in the IDF inventory.
In 2021, DoD awarded Xtend a contract to deliver dozens of its Skylord Xtender systems for use indoors and in urban environments by special forces in the Navy, Marine Corps and Army and the Israeli Defense Ministry. The system is already in use by Israeli special forces as is Xtend’s Wolverine, a multi-purpose quadcopter that DoD has also ordered several hundred of.
The three-pound (1.3kg) Wolverine leverages AI, optical and thermal sensors to perform the indoor-outdoor ISTAR-type missions of the drones above but also integrates a robotic claw capable of grabbing and flying away with IEDs or other objects.
It makes use of tablet and VR headset interfaces similar to other UAVs and can precisely deliver and deposit up to 5.5-pound (2.2 kg) payloads including other micro-robots to locations up to 4.3 miles (7 Km) away at speeds up to 45 mph (70 kmh).
Man-portable, the Wolverine can deploy from vehicles (a video shows it launching from Plasan’s Wilder light armored vehicle), detect, classify and track targets, and operate in navigation-denied environments. A totable 50,000 Lumen flashlight could illuminate nighttime targets or temporarily blind personnel in buildings or other enclosed spaces.
Xtend has designed a swappable payload interface, allowing the Wolverine to carry electronic warfare (EW) and other capability packages. Company founder and CEO, Aviv Shapira, told me via email that users “can upload [features] like it’s an iPhone … so you use the right app and payload, which is a new capability, and that is disruptive in the drone space because usually drones are tailored for [limited] missions.”
Xtend stressed that the drone could be incorporated into robotic combat vehicles (RCV) like the U.S. Army’s RCV-Light and others.
The capabilities of these and other systems with high levels of autonomy have given rise to concerns and criticisms of their potential employment. A wide cross-section of organizations and interests have weighed in, including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s Modern War Institute.
But the conflict with Hamas (and potentially Hezbollah) will create its own momentum for AI-enabled drone intervention – driven by Hamas’ own tactics.
Israel’s world-first use of an AI-guided swarm of drones to locate, identify and attack Hamas terrorists in Gaza in May of 2021 shows that the Genie is already out of the bottle. The micro-drones it now has will be in the vanguard of the IDF’s urban fight.