CROWDED SKIES

Air traffic challenge draws Emiratis to Israeli drone firm

Top Arab arms supplier Edge Group buys stake in High Lander, one of 50 Israeli companies exhibiting in UAE’s IDEX security conference next week

High Lander Aviation

High Lander Aviation

High Lander Aviation CEO Alon Abelson with drones

TEL AVIV – From intelligence gathering to pizza delivery, drone aircraft are increasingly performing new tasks that saturate the skies with the buzz of quadcopters and raise the risks of mid-air collisions.

The threat to passenger flights is especially alarming with 2.2 million unmanned aerial vehicles registered in the U.S. and the number swiftly growing everywhere else. As the world addresses the technological and regulatory challenges, Abu Dhabi-based Edge Group, the largest Arab weapons manufacturer, announced last month a $14 million investment in Israel’s High Lander Aviation to help develop its traffic management software.

“When flown by our system, the drone will monitor its environment, avoid collisions… and be guided by our algorithm, which is like a control tower,” High Lander CEO Alon Abelson told The Circuit.

High Lander is among some 50 Israeli companies that will be exhibiting in the United Arab Emirates next week at IDEX, the biggest security conference in the Middle East. Others at the show, which runs from Feb. 20-24 in Abu Dhabi, include state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries; Elbit Systems, the largest Israeli defense contractor selling shares on the Nasdaq exchange; Heven Drones, which specializes in delivering heavy equipment by UAV, and Plasan, which makes armored vehicles.

Edge was founded four years ago in a consolidation of 25 military and technology companies owned by the emirate of Abu Dhabi. In the initial burst of activity following the normalization agreements between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco known as the Abraham Accords, Edge signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel Aerospace in 2021 to develop defensive systems that can use electronic warfare equipment against enemy drones.

The new deal with High Lander gives Edge a “strategic opportunity” to develop drone technology further in both the military and civilian domains, according to the Emirati company. Edge Chairman Faisal Al Bannai said in a statement after the High Lander deal was announced that developing a traffic-management platform for drones “could not be more urgent” because of the rapid proliferation of the unmanned vehicles.

Joining High Lander’s board last week were Edge CFO Rodrigo Torres and Waleid Al Mesmari, senior vice president for electronic warfare and cyber technologies.

Working with Emirati military industries is “strategic for Israel and part of our ongoing cooperation with Gulf countries,” Edouard Cukierman, managing partner of Tel Aviv-based Catalyst Investments, a matchmaker for UAE investors with Israeli tech companies, told The Circuit.

Abelson, a reserve major in the Israel Air Force, co-founded High Lander after serving as a flight supervisor in northern Israel in his last military role. The experience led him to develop technology that focuses on command-and-control functions, rather than building drones themselves. “We wanted to empower the platforms,” he said. Now High Lander is promoting its product as a drone traffic controller at the national level. “This is the goal,” he said. “Taking an algorithm that managed 20, 30 or 40 drones, and using it to protect against collisions in the entire country.”

In recent months, the company has begun testing its software in southern Israel’s Ilan Ramon Airport on large-scale drones. High Lander’s Universal Unmanned Traffic Management system can also be supplemented with a range of digital maps to guide the drones autonomously. If satellite signals are lost, that enables the drone to employ on-board cameras and adjust its route. “The best solution is to replace the human operators — take technology and use it to bypass issues caused by pressure, personal calculations and tiredness,” he said.

High Lander’s drone traffic system is in use by clients in Israel, including the national police force’s counterterrorism unit; the Tel Aviv municipal government, which uses drones to monitor demonstrations; and the Jewish National Fund, whose drones patrol state lands administered by the agency. High Lander managed the air traffic routing in a 2021 test of drone delivery for Pizza Hut.

Edge, which had 2021 sales exceeding $5 billion, is well-positioned as a business partner to help High Lander develop its traffic-management software for greater volume and new directions, said Eden Avraham Attias, a retired IAF brigadier general and combat pilot who is managing partner of Impactive Capital in Tel Aviv. Among Edge’s greatest interests is autonomous flight, which can be significantly advanced by High Lander’s technology, he told The Circuit.

“Autonomous air vehicles will be part of our day-to-day lives,” Attias said. “Whether you’re doing security, sensing hazardous materials, monitoring natural gas or doing deliveries, to implement all of this, you need a management system.”

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