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Robots That Fly

Refoel Pride

Silent flying machines resembling grasshoppers that hover outside your door. A helicopter-like transporter the size of a small car that can ferry injured troops to safety. All this and more from Israel, the tiny state that’s moved ahead of the pack in the race for the perfect drone.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A group of US soldiers is caught in a firefight behind enemy lines in the hills south of Afghanistan’s Helmand province, bordering Pakistan. Taliban terrorists are nestled in machine gun nests on three sides. To the rear, a minefield blocks the soldiers’ exit. Reinforcements have been called in, but until then, the soldiers will have to try to shoot their way out.

One problem: There are wounded that need to be evacuated. Without immediate care, these soldiers may die. Out in the distance, the soldiers catch sight of it, their first good news all day. It’s the tiny flying machine that will ferry the wounded to safety, the sign that all is not lost.

The AirMule, about the size of a Toyota Camry, hovers over the battlefield, homing in on its target. Unlike a helicopter, it has no external rotors that might prevent landing in a tight space. Unlike a plane, it possesses vertical landing and takeoff capability.

It weighs about 1,700 pounds and can carry an additional 1,400- pound payload, enough capacity for seven good-sized soldiers. It can reach speeds of up to 110 miles per hour and climb to an altitude of 12,000 feet. Best of all, the fuel-powered AirMule can remain in flight for up to five hours, making repeated rescue missions a reality.

The AirMule zips to its target, lands, and picks up its wounded. Thousands of miles away, the US soldier controlling the device in a secured location knows that at the very least the wounded have a chance of survival.

Mike Turgeman, the chief engineer of Urban Aeronautics, the Israeli company that built the AirMule, said the company designed the machines after the painful lessons of US battlefield experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Israel’s experiences in the 2006 Lebanon War.

“It’s a scenario that comes up all too often in wartime,” he says. “A unit of soldiers trapped in a remote location with several wounded. You need to get the wounded out of there, but you can’t send in a helicopter, either because of antiaircraft fire that would endanger the helicopter flight crew, or because there’s no space open enough for a helicopter to land. A helicopter needs a wide clearing to land because of the wingspan of the rotors. The AirMule fits this situation perfectly, because it’s unmanned, and because the rotors are internal and compact — it can land almost anywhere. This vehicle would allow the most seriously wounded to be evacuated promptly.”

Unmanned vehicles — better known to the world at large as drones — are a big business in Israel these days. 


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