Friday, April 16, 2021

The butterfly on the wall

In a small room in an enemy country, a small butterfly flutters about, relaying audio and video to a situation room somewhere in Israel • Israel Aerospace Industries is already at work developing this seemingly science fiction-like device.

Engineers working in the central hangar of the Israel Aerospace Industries compound are transfixed by the small figure fluttering about in the air before them. Different versions of terrifying unmanned aerial vehicles are currently in use by the Israel Defense Forces and the militaries of other countries throughout the world, and this small creature is ready to spread its wings and join them in flight.

The fantasy of every Iranian and Syrian intelligence chief is to be able to see exactly what this mechanical spy sees. Every advanced and secret aerial system is transparent to this creature. It weighs no more than 20 grams and accurately hovers only a few centimeters above a UAV, the more powerful aerial vehicle that can reach Iran and, according to reports, is capable of launching an attack. Yet, despite its diminutive build, this man-made butterfly steals the attention of all eyes in the hangar.

At first, it seems like something “Q” developed for British superspy James Bond. The artificial butterfly is handheld and is capable of a vertical takeoff, just like a helicopter. Returning to the Bond movie, we will replace the two main characters: “Q” now becomes the IAI and “007” now becomes a Golani Brigade officer. True, the movie may not be a blockbuster, but no one will want to be the target of this metallic bug.

From Hollywood to the IDF

This butterfly does more than just fly around in the air. Just like any self-respecting UAV, it can also take color images and relay them back to ground control in real time. If you ever imagined what it would be like to be a fly on the wall at a critical moment, this butterfly can fulfill your dream. To explain how it works, Dubi Binyamini, head of IAI’s mini-robotics department, takes out a helmet with a visor that looks like something from a science fiction movie and says, “When you put this on you are actually inside the butterfly’s cockpit. You see what the butterfly sees. You can fly at any altitude and distance and see everything in real time.”

As hinted in his position title, Binyamini is involved in transforming the Hollywood magic into reality, here in Lod, home of the IAI. In his laboratory, his team is trying to miniaturize anything that can snap pictures, record video and conduct electricity, and turn them into weapons capable of winning the next war.

In recent years, the IDF has begun to use what it calls “tactical UAVs,” also known as “Sky Riders.” An artillery unit in the IDF already uses small UAVs, which can be launched on the battlefield to obtain real-time intelligence images from behind enemy lines. The term “small” is, of course relative; these UAVs span more than 1.5 meters, and certainly dwarf the butterfly.

This trend of unmanned vehicles is not only being implemented in the air. IDF units responsible for the security fence that surrounds the Gaza Strip began deploying unmanned ground vehicles that move around the area and film any suspicious movement, on a limited basis. The navy too has deployed an unmanned ship controlled by an officer in a land-based air-conditioned office. A robotic war that you can only see today in movie theaters has never been so close to reality.

The butterflies are Binaymini’s babies. He has already passed the age of 70, and 30 years ago won the prestigious Israel Security Award for his role in the development of the systems installed on the Kfir, Israel’s home-made combat aircraft. Binyamini and others do not view the butterfly as science fiction. Israel is one of four countries that has delved into the world of insect spies. In the U.S. and South Korea, countries also involved in the development of this technology, most of the research is done by universities. In Holland, as in Israel, the military industries are also involved. Israel and Holland view the device not only as a topic of research, but also as a devastating weapon, or, at least a hard-to-detect intelligence agent.

“The butterfly’s advantage is its ability to fly in an enclosed environment. There is no other aerial vehicle that can do that today,” Binaymini said. “The enclosed structure may be an airport terminal or an indoor train station. You can follow a suspect around without them aware of the fact that you are observing everything they do.” Airport terminals and train stations have indeed become preferred venues of attack by terrorists. Madrid, Moscow, Mumbai, Tokyo and Ben-Gurion International Airport in 1972 are just a few of a long list of targets through which tens of thousands of people pass through each day and which have been attacked in the past.

Binyamini mentions airport terminals, but in fact his butterfly can function just as well in forests and jungles. This is important because in locations like southern Lebanon, there are quite a few forests with which Israeli soldiers have unfortunately had to become familiar over the years. Aerial vehicles in use today can fly over the forests, but they don’t have the ability to observe the goings-on within them. Hezbollah ambush forces can elude UAVs easily, because UAV cameras cannot “see” past the tops of the trees. If the butterfly meets its planned specifications, it will be able to fly among the trees and plants of a forest.

“Like any butterfly, ours is not fond of strong winds and cold temperatures,” Binyamini said. “In my dreams, this vehicle is used by soldiers in the field, who carry it around in their pockets. Some people think this idea is not ripe enough yet, but it represents a true technological breakthrough. It’s a personal aerial vehicle.”

Two years to take-off

Some mini-UAVs are already in use on the battlefield. U.S. military forces deployed UAVs in Iraq that were only 30 centimeters in length. These vehicles however could not manipulate their wings independently. They couldn’t move their wings the way both a real and artificial butterfly can, which renders them useless in closed environments such as residential structures or offices. As opposed to less flexible aircraft, the butterfly can hover in mid-air, and one can only imagine their usefulness in the hands of the world’s most daring elite commandos. Perhaps the assassination of arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden would have transpired differently if the U.S. commandos involved in the operation had been replaced by a tiny butterfly that entered his home, shot him without anyone noticing it, and flew out of a window and back home.

The smaller the butterfly, the less noise its wings make, and there will be a point when we have a butterfly that is virtually inaudible. “If I stand outside IAI on the Route 40 highway I can direct the butterfly into an IAI hangar and back again to the highway and no one would notice it,” Binaymini claimed. Whether or not that is true, the IDF has already expressed interest in the device.

The electronic insect has a plain enough appearance. Nylon sheets are connected to hollow tubes that support several cog-wheels. The vehicle also includes several miniaturized electronic mechanisms. It flaps its wings 14 times per second and the speed at which it flies can be controlled using a small throttle installed on a remote control unit. Because holding the control unit and using the directional joystick at the same time is a bit difficult, in the current prototype the pilot needs to open and close the throttle using his or her chin. Binyamini believes that the simplicity of the design will enable any soldier to operate the butterfly.

“If we obtain the funding we are asking for, the butterfly will be ready for use in two years,” Binaymini promised. “This fragile creature you see in the photos today will be replaced with a more robust version capable of surviving accidents. We need to manufacture a vehicle that can withstand the force of someone stepping on it.”

Reducing costs

For now, as long as the butterfly hovers about in IAI hangars, the raw materials used to assemble it are not expensive. The nylon sheets used for wings are perhaps the same sheets we used to cover our windows during the first Gulf War in 1991. Binyamini, describing the history of the components he used for the butterfly, said, “I started out with cellophane which people use to bundle flowers. But that was too heavy, inflexible, and tore a lot. It took me a long time, but I finally found a material that was close enough to what I wanted, which was manufactured by a company outside Israel. They sent me samples that were a few meters long and I have been supporting myself using those samples to this day.”

Producing the butterfly’s wings using samples sent to him by a foreign company was one way Binyamini could cut costs. Eliad Michaeli, the tallest and youngest member of Binyamini’s team, found more ways. Michaeli, 17, is a high school student working with IAI engineers to develop the butterfly as part of his electronics courses at the IAI ORT technical school which he attends. He assembles and sometimes even pilots the vehicles. “I have been flying unmanned aerial vehicles since I was a child. I stopped counting how many of those vehicles I crashed. Piloting the butterfly is a different story though. I am happy to say I haven’t crashed a single butterfly to date, and I hope it stays that way,” Michaeli said.

At home Michaeli is not permitted to talk about his experiences with the butterfly team. His friends are not privy to his secret life in the laboratory either. A few months ago, Michaeli brought the artificial butterfly to his school accompanied by an IAI engineer. He flew the winged robot around a bit above the heads his astonished teachers and classmates.

Learning from nature

The most intriguing way to cut butterfly costs turned out to be nature’s way. Binyamini took us to his laboratory, which is a small prefabricated structure located at the end of a winding and dizzying road within the IAI compound. The building is home to all the butterflies Binyamini has worked on for the past 10 years. “This is the butcher shop,” Binyamini says pointing out an area in which the different versions of the butterfly are on display. Some managed to fly for only a few seconds before crashing on the ground, others stayed in the air for a minute or two.

On the other side of a thin divider in the room is a collection of real butterflies that Binyamini has gathered over the years. “Even in a thousand years from now we won’t be able to invent what nature has always been implementing successfully. The first insect that flew in the atmosphere did so 400 million years ago. The butterflies we know today have had 200 million years of experience in adapting to their environment and survival. During all that time they developed more efficient flight mechanisms. They have accumulated a very rich pool of experience. Why not learn from it?” Binyamini said.

This field is known as “biomimicry.” Instead of learning about nature, we learn from it. We try to mimic it. Scientists have already learned how to copy the waterproof quality of the lotus plant, which has resulted in waterproof paints. With these paints, drops of rain wash the dirt off the surface instead of being absorbed by it. Air flight was also the result of man observing nature.

In Israel, only a few courses are offered in universities in this field, and it is in this field that Binyamini found his life’s calling. Besides developing weapons, Binyamini is the chairman of the Israeli Lepidopterists Society for butterfly and moth enthusiasts. His love for the flying insects began at the age of nine, and he has since then chased after them all across the globe, from the Saudi Arabian border through mine fields near the Hermon mountain and 4,000 feet above ground in the Andes mountains.

In 1990, Binyamini published a guide to butterflies in Israel. If someone wants to understand butterflies or clone them, Binyamini is the man to see. “At first, there were many disappointments. The butterfly I built would wave its wings, but would only propel itself upwards for a few seconds. I asked myself why that happens and realized that we were not doing a good job of copying actual butterflies in nature. The materials we were using had to be the same ones used by real butterflies,” Binyamini said.

In other words, if it was to become a butterfly, it had to fly like one, behave like one and look like one. After all, to compete with 200 million years of experience on earth is no easy task. “When we adapted the materials we were using and the wing structure more closely to those of a real butterfly, we were suddenly able to fly the clone back and forth in the hangar,” Binyamini said. “This happened as soon as we were more accurately inspired by nature. It was fantastic. We flew it so often that some of the pilots began to tire and no longer could pilot the device. Our butterfly was victorious.”

As opposed to birds that have two wings, IAI’s butterfly has four, just like real butterflies. Explaining the aerodynamics, Binyamini says, “When the front wing opens, the rear wing opens a bit later, and in this way the device forces air in a forward motion. When the front wing closes, the rear wing remains open, forcing air in a backward motion and propelling the butterfly forward.” This unique design was the ground-breaking discovery that enabled Binyamini’s butterflies to achieve uninterrupted flight.

Birds discover a new companion

Guy Marom, a development engineer who has become the leading butterfly pilot, related a humorous anecdote. “On one occasion, our butterfly flew at an altitude of 50 meters and simply ran away. At that point, we saw a flock of birds lower altitude and join it in flight. This has happened several times since then. If we fly a larger butterfly, birds will join it and let it lead the group. If we fly a smaller butterfly, insects will join it and you can see a trail of black dots behind it.”

According to Marom, copying nature has its negative side as well. “When we fly the butterfly near cats, they begin to wag their tales nervously and keep their eyes on it.”

Binyamini adds a particular bird to the list of the artificial butterfly’s enemies. “If our butterfly passes by a nest of spur-winged plover birds, the birds simply attack it.”

The butterflies developed in the tiny laboratory are already smaller than some real butterflies. But while other insects are capable of carrying a weight that is three time their own, butterflies can only carry a weight that is two times their own, which translates to only several dozen grams. Due to this limitation, each electronic component in the artificial butterfly is designed carefully.

So how is the man-made butterfly capable of carrying weapons if it is limited weight-wise? “I believe it is capable of doing that. We haven’t tested that yet,” Binyamini said. “You would be surprised to know how tiny the electronic components can be and how little they can weigh.”

Binyamini pulls a small, hermetically sealed box out of a drawer. Inside the box is a black object as thin as dental floss. It’s a camera. “The truth is that this is so tiny that sometimes I can’t find it. This camera and its memory card weigh only 0.15 grams,” he says. The aerial expert adds the device’s transmitter and battery, bringing the total weight to 1 gram. He points to a black spot on his butterfly and says, “What you see here is a man-made muscle. If I pass an electrical current through it, the thread will contract. A single meter of this thread weighs .002 grams. Where else on earth can you find a one-meter long muscle that weighs .002 grams?”

Binyamini believes that in the near future every soldier will carry a butterfly that did not emerge from a cocoon, and that the next stage of that process may apply to all of us. “We can have it in our backyards,” he says cautiously. Just as we keep dogs in our homes today to deter robbers, Binyamini is sure we can have independently operating artificial butterflies doing the same thing in the future. He points out that we once thought that robotic vacuum cleaners were also science fiction. “One day you will have a coop in your backyard filled with artificial butterflies. They will identify home invaders, photograph them, raise an alarm, chase them, and attack them as well.”

On the other hand, our privacy will also be breached by them. It will be much easier to film people without them being aware of it. How can we prevent that? I ask. Binyamini’s response? “There is no solution for that yet.”

Gary Mortimer
Gary Mortimer
Founder and Editor of sUAS News | Gary Mortimer has been a commercial balloon pilot for 25 years and also flies full-size helicopters. Prior to that, he made tea and coffee in air traffic control towers across the UK as a member of the Royal Air Force.