An Israeli Company Is Hawking Its Self-Launching Drone System to U.S. Police Departments

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An Israeli drone company is proselytizing to American police departments about an autonomous drone system that can automatically launch police drones to fly to the sites of suspected crimes. One sheriff’s department in Louisiana has repeatedly tested the system, called Orion, which is already in use by the Israeli national police and, since October 7, many Israeli settlements, according to the company’s founder.

Created by the Israeli company High Lander, Orion allows users to direct hundreds of drones at once by automating them to navigate and perform actions without user input. The software system turns drones into “next-generation security guards,” according to an Orion brochure.

In February, High Lander held a demo event in Baton Rouge to showcase the “drone-in-a-box solution,” which the East Baton Rouge Sherrif’s Office first tested out last June. “The system will be a game changer for the fight against crime in Baton Rouge,” High Lander wrote in a LinkedIn post about the event, which was attended by officers from around the country.

The company has used its pilot program in Louisiana to encourage other police agencies to check out Orion, and its February event in Louisiana was just one part of a tour that included stops in San Diego, Phoenix, and Miami, according to LinkedIn posts.

Orion’s capabilities are startling. A police force could have drones automatically launch from charging stations when triggered by “events like gunshots, burglaries, and car accidents.” Once they deploy, the drones can perform pre-set tasks: releasing cargo; relaying live video feeds; identifying and searching for people, objects, or vehicles using AI and thermal sensors; and making announcements over loudspeaker. If the system gets multiple calls, Orion can automatically choose which to prioritize. 

A High Lander blog post about the project adds “new capabilities are being discovered all the time.”

The East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office held “mock scenario testing” with High Lander’s system “approximately 5 times,” Casey Hicks, the department’s public information director, told The Intercept. Hicks added that the demos were conducted at the sheriff’s range facility and that they “are not aware of any use out in the community at any time.” 

High Lander did not respond to a request for comment.

There is a documented history of U.S.-Israel security tech exchanges, which civil rights and racial justice advocates have long criticized for contributing to the militarization of the police. The Tel Aviv-based High Lander collaborated with Stephenson Technologies Corporation, a Louisiana nonprofit that works with the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, to bring Orion to East Baton Rouge, with up to $1 million in backing from the Israel–U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation. That funding comes from an endowment provided equally by the U.S. and Israeli governments. 

“People should be really concerned that our tax dollars are often being put right in the pockets of American and Israeli tech millionaires or billionaires, and that those technologies are then used on us and our neighbors to make people more unsafe,” said Lou Blumberg, an organizer with both Jewish Voice for Peace and Eye on Surveillance, an organization that monitors the adoption of surveillance technology in New Orleans. 

“This technology that’s coming out of Israel is heavily implicated in human rights abuses,” Blumberg said, “because you can’t separate the tech from the apartheid.”

From Israel to Louisiana

In East Baton Rouge, High Lander and Stephenson Technologies integrated the drone platform “with the city of Baton Rouge’s citywide system of gunshot sensors” for testing by the sheriff’s department, according to High Lander’s website. In a December post about the project, the company quoted an employee who said “it was a great feeling to see that first autonomous dispatch.”

The city uses ShotSpotter, a gunshot detection technology recently dropped by the city of Chicago due to critiques of racist bias and inaccuracy.

The East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office has long been accused of mistreating and harassing people of color — including using acoustic weapons on protesters without proper training — raising concerns among local advocates about its use of Orion.

When Israeli security tech is exported to the United States, it is “used to surveil and criminalize, mostly, young Black boys,” said Blumberg. Pointing to other types of surveillance technology, including facial recognition, Blumberg added, “There’s actually no statistical evidence that it helps prevent crimes” or “that it helps make people safer.”

The head of training at the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office, Carl Dabadie, participated in a police training program in Israel about a decade ago — and promised to bring his learnings back to the local community.

The Anti-Defamation League invited Dabadie, then the chief of the Baton Rouge Police Department, to attend a National Counter-Terrorism Seminar in Israel in 2014. Seeking airfare for the training, Dabadie said there are “several terrrist targets” [sic] in Baton Rouge, apparently referring to local oil refineries, according to a document obtained through a public records request. He returned from the eight-day seminar, during which participants visited an Israeli police department in Jerusalem and a border outpost, and told local media he had plans to update the department’s riot gear.

“Instead of real bullets and shooting at people, they use foam bullets, tear gas, shields, and even paintballs,” he enthused.

Dabadie left the police department in the wake of his violent handling of protests over the 2016 police killing of Alton Sterling, which earned condemnations from Amnesty International and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association. Still, Dabadie defended “our militarized tactics and our militarized law enforcement.” In 2020, he was made head of training for the sheriff’s office.

Protesters and civil rights groups sued several police departments and officials, including Dabadie and East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux III, for violating their civil rights during the 2016 protests. 

In court proceedings stemming from one of the lawsuits, an officer testified that police had “fooled around” with a crowd-dispersing acoustic weapon and used it against protesters without sufficient training. (Those plaintiffs were awarded a $1.2 million settlement last year.)

The lawyer who filed that lawsuit, William Most, told The Intercept that the sheriff’s department’s track record makes him concerned about its use of an autonomous drone system. 

“Given EBRSO’s past trouble in complying with the Constitution, I would be concerned about it adopting a drone program without clear safeguards to protect the rights of Baton Rouge residents,” said Most.

In Israel, meanwhile, High Lander’s business has flourished amid Israel’s retaliatory war on Gaza. After October 7, Israel passed an emergency measure saying that civilian drones can return to the skies only if they are connected to an approved unmanned traffic management, or UTM, system. High Lander became the first approved UTM system in Israel. (The country’s Air Force previously tested the company’s drone technology.)

The drones have “counter-drone” measures that can take over and land enemy drones, and detect the location of their controllers. In an April presentation, High Lander’s co-founder Alon Abelson, a former Israeli Air Force commander, describes a scenario in which Orion allows users to deploy “hundreds of PTZ [pan-tilt-zoom] cameras that hover and relay images from the air,” a surveillance capacity he described as unprecedented.

The company relies on hundreds of sensors around Israel, Abelson said in his talk, allowing them to turn drone fleets “into part of an information-sharing system that did not exist before.” The system allows settlements’ drones to automatically launch from chargers when triggered by cameras, smoke detectors, or “smart fences.” Since October 7, he said, “we have provided this system to hundreds of settlements throughout the country.”

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