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New Israeli cooperation to develop cyber defenses for autonomous vehicles

Experts from Rafael, one of the largest defense firms in Israel and makers of the Iron Dome missile-defense system, will team up with staff at Ben-Gurion University and students at Rafael’s soon-to-open branch at Beersheva’s high-tech park.

BGN Technologies and Rafael sign a collaboration agreement at Tel Aviv's Cybertech conference in mid-February 2019. Credit: Rafael.
BGN Technologies and Rafael sign a collaboration agreement at Tel Aviv's Cybertech conference in mid-February 2019. Credit: Rafael.

A new joint research agreement between Israeli defense company Rafael and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev will see cutting-edge development on cyber defenses for autonomous vehicles, as well as other technologies for the military and civilian markets.

The deal, signed this month in Tel Aviv, will see experts from Rafael—one of the largest defense firms in Israel and makers of the Iron Dome missile-defense system—team up with university staff and students at Rafael’s soon-to-open branch at Beersheva’s high-tech park, which will be located near the campus.

Rafael will also launch a center of excellence in the southern city to promote technological development, according to Dr. Irit Idan, executive vice president of research and development at Rafael.

“I think that we are today on the cusp of the technological jump for autonomous vehicles,” Idan told JNS. “But it is very hard to say if it will happen in five or 10 years. There are many questions that still to be solved. I don’t think it will happen in one stroke, that suddenly all cars will be autonomous. I see a gradual development. But even today, you can already see autonomous components entering the car market.”

Military autonomous systems are already here, Idan noted, including Rafael’s sea-based Protector Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV), which can conduct tasks autonomously. Driverless ground vehicles for border protection, logistics trucks and autonomous drones are also being produced by defense industries.

“Military autonomous systems are already here,” said Idan. “The ground vehicles don’t have to deal with traffic jams, but they do have to deal with natural obstacles; it is a different type of driving,” she said. “If we look at what is being done by [the Pentagon’s] Defense Advanced Research Agency [DARPA], or Boston Dynamics, we can see incredible robotic systems being developed. The military has been a step ahead, but if we also look at what Tesla and Japanese car companies are doing, it is hard to know who will come first, the military or the civilian sector.”

Whether on the ground, at sea or in the air, autonomous systems need a range of sensors, like cameras, radars and laser-measurement systems—all of which make them vulnerable to hackers. The joint teams from Rafael and Ben-Gurion University will examine how artificial intelligence and machine learning can map out such security breaches and offer defenses.

As part of that cooperation, university students in relevant fields will receive training from Rafael engineers. In addition, Idan said, students and members of staff will be invited to Rafael’s classified research environments to help development. Some members of staff are also likely to take sabbaticals with the company. “The idea is to utilize to the full Israel’s high-quality personnel, including through cooperation with higher learning institutes,” she said.

“Cyber defense is one of the biggest challenges—not just for the military market, but also the civilian one, at the national and personal levels,” stated Idan. “We need to leverage all available forces to deal with this.”

As autonomous systems come online in both the military and civilian worlds, defending them against cyber threats will become increasingly critical.

“Rafael’s systems are in the air, in space—we have engines in space—on land and at sea,” said Idan. “Reality tells us that we have to safeguard both our autonomous abilities and our cyber defenses,” said Idan.

Rafael built Israel’s national cyber-operations command center, which is considered to be one of the most technologically leading in the world. It also won a contract from Argentina’s Defense Ministry for a cyber-defense project.

Cooperating with the civilian technology world, which Idan said is currently experiencing its “fourth technological revolution, led by startups, higher learning centers, and small to medium companies,” is part of Rafael’s strategy for keeping a qualitative edge in the coming years, she said.

During the research cooperation signing ceremony, Ran Gozali, senior vice president at Rafael’s research-and-development and engineering division, stated: “Cyber security is one of the greatest challenges in almost every aspect of modern life.”

Netta Cohen, director-general of BGN Technologies (the university’s technology company), said during the ceremony that Ben-Gurion University looked forward to “close cooperation with Rafael, a world leader in advanced combat systems, on a range of breakthrough projects in different fields.”

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