Battle-tested in Gaza: Britain’s next drones?

The British army has trialled Israeli drones used in Gaza, Declassified has found.

20 June 2024
RWJJKG Jerusalem, Israel. 7th March, 2019. Visitors are amused by a small drone demonstrating the ease of drone piloting by XTEND at OurCrowd 2019. OurCrowd, a global investment platform and Israel?s leading venture investor summit, considered the largest technology showcase in Israel, opened at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem featuring over 170 startups with 17,000 registered attendees. Credit: Nir Alon/Alamy Live News

Xtend display a drone at a tech show in Jerusalem. (Photo: Nir Alon / Alamy)

Britain is experimenting with new drone technology that Israel’s military uses in Gaza. The British army conducted exercises on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire to test a drone made by Israeli tech firm Xtend in December.

Hundreds of Xtend’s small drones are being used by Israeli forces in Gaza. They enable soldiers to launch grenades and scan tunnels and buildings without having to risk their own lives.

Xtend’s drones are being used for the first time in the war and the company is reported to be collaborating with an Israeli military unit, the Yiftah, to develop “special weapons”. 

A “warhead has been developed that is mounted on these drones thus transforming them into a weapon (suicide drone)”, one report notes.

The Israeli military describes the Yiftah as a “top-secret” unit comprising “a small team of innovative scientists and engineers” that “have been key to our success over the years”.

Xtend’s drone technology comes complete with a virtual reality headset and hand-held controller to operate the drone. “It’s just like a computer game,” says Matteo Shapira, Xtend’s co-founder. 

“It’s very easy to operate, and they don’t need to know anything about the machine, how it behaves or what it needs to do,” he adds. 

The company’s drones are reported by mainstream Western and Israeli media as enabling Israel to target Hamas terrorists in an urban warfare setting. Yet Israel’s war in Gaza has been devastating to ordinary Palestinians, including intentionally targeting civilians.

The Times of Israel reports that Xtend’s technology was initially developed to help the Israeli army shoot down incendiary balloons launched by Palestinian militant groups on the border with Gaza. 

Before the current war in the territory, Xtend’s biggest client was the US Department of Defense which has bought hundreds of the company’s drones, many for use by US special forces


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Flagship experimentation

The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) exercises with Xtend’s drones are part of its Army Warfighting Experiment (AWE), which is the “flagship experimentation programme for the British army”.

The latest AWE, which runs from 2022-24, explores “innovative technologies and tactics to prepare our soldiers for future battlefields”, the army says

Xtend noted that its participation in “exclusive British army experiments and demonstrations” was “an opportunity we deeply appreciated and cherished”. 

The company said that its “innovative systems” were assessed by the British army’s Infantry Trials and Development Unit, adding that Xtend’s drones were in the “capable hands” of the Royal Air Force and army.

The MoD’s second permanent secretary, Paul Lincoln, was one of those who attended the event, listing Xtend as one of the companies he “met with…to discuss their defence products”.

Earlier this year, Xtend wrote on LinkedIn that it was “honored” to take a significant part in the British army’s “AWE annual conclusion event”. 

It added: “The pinnacle of a year long process was seeing our technology tested in action with British soldiers along with many NATO and ally [sic] countries in complex multi force urban scenarios”.

Xtend acknowledges that its staff include active Israeli soldiers. It has written: “We would like to express our appreciation to our UK partners for their collaboration and agility required to work with Israeli companies in these challenging times where many of our employees are still under active reserve duty”.


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Another exercise

The army conducted an earlier exercise with Xtend’s products in May 2023, again on Salisbury Plain. One of those to witness a demonstration of the company’s drones was then defence secretary Ben Wallace, among other senior military figures. 

Wallace did not appear to publicise the event. But “Xtend was honoured and thankful to have taken part in the invite-only British army exercise”, wrote the company’s chief business officer, Ido Bar-On. 

During the manoeuvres, Xtend’s drones “were operated by British soldiers testing Xtend’s unique operating system and multi-mission capabilities for urban warfare”, he added. 

The company described itself as “working closely with the UK MoD” and is clearly seeking to expand in the UK military market.

Declassified has not been able to establish the full extent of Xtend’s relations with the British MoD. In both September 2023 and 2022 the company was invited to the annual London arms fair, one of the biggest in the world. 

Xtend, which was founded in 2018, is also advised by General Sir Paul Newton, a former assistant chief of defence staff in the UK who is now a military consultant. 

The Gaza war is profitable for Xtend which has just secured $40m in new funding from investors. 

Its CEO, Aviv Shapira, said: “Before the war it was difficult to raise money but suddenly everything has opened up. We decided to wait with the fund raising during the war, and the amount of our orders increased greatly”.

An MoD spokesperson told us: “We do not hold any procurement contracts with Xtend.”