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Hi-tech Blooms in the Desert

By Katie Beiter | The Media Line

December 4, 2016

Photo: Katie Beiter (The Media Line)

Beersheba and the Negev turn into a technologically advanced “ecosystem”

Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion dreamed of making the Negev Desert bloom. It’s taken almost 70 years, but his dream is becoming reality.

Once desolate, the Negev capital Beersheba and its environs are developing as the hi-tech center of Israel.
The southern desert area constitutes over half of the total land mass of the country, but contains less than 10 percent of the population.

In the past, Beersheba and the Negev were not regarded as suitable for promoting modern industry and technology, in large part because of their remoteness. Although Tel Aviv, the commercial heart of the country, is only less than 60 miles from Beersheba, road and rail connection were poor. These have improved dramatically in recent years. In addition, Beersheba, with a population of roughly 200,000, hosts one of Israel’s leading research universities, Ben-Gurion University (BGU).

“I was raised in Beersheba, I studied here and, as many thousands of people, I left this place because it wasn’t a place where I could live and work like in the Tel Aviv area,” Moshe Hazaz, a project manager at Liacom Systems, a communications and IT consulting firm, told The Media Line at a tech conference in Beersheba.

The government of Israel realized the untapped potential of the Negev and Beersheba, and, in an effort to promote industry, innovation and opportunity in the region, decided to not only partially fund a technology park in the city but also to move the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) headquarters and the National Cyber Directorate to the city. Beersheba is becoming a major military as well as a technology center.

“For many years, the south of Israel and Beersheba were neglected,” Hazaz asserted. “This is a milestone.”

“I remember how this city was positioned in the national priorities of the past,” Ruvik Danilovich, the Mayor of Beersheba, said. “The State of Israel has now moved the capital of knowledge to the Negev.”

One of the projects spearheading the transition in the Negev was the Advanced Technologies Park (ATP), an area enclosing big tech companies like Deutsche Telekom and PayPal and dedicated to fostering cyber tech innovation. Adjacent to BGU and connected to the Beersheba train station by a pedestrian bridge, officials are hoping that the ATP will become the cyber center of Israel. The government moved the National Cyber Directorate to the ATP.

“Reality keeps changing, our technological abilities need to be able to adapt quickly, so we are shifting from the enablers of communication to being actual designers of the reality,” Brig.-Gen. Nati Cohen, the Chief Communication Officer for the IDF, said.

Working with BGU, the ATP hopes to create a sort of tech ecosystem by inviting startups, venture capitalists and hi-tech companies to make Beersheba the “city of the future.”

“It’s not trivial that the State of Israel is an international source of innovation,” Eviatar Matania, the Director General of the National Cyber Directorate, said. “And, in order to preserve this, we need the right kind of government involvement to build an ecosystem, but not to interfere with it.”

For the first time ever, the city of Beersheba hosted the NexTech Conference, which was an event on future cyber technologies, at the ATP complex. In white tents on the grounds of the ATP, 20 different startups showcased their new ideas and innovations to possible investors and other hi-tech companies. From robotics to information technology, including the creation of an underwater drone, many of these startups are not just cyber related, but are also related to the IDF, as their move to the Negev has prompted a slew of companies to focus on cyber and defense.

“When we move down here to the Negev, our connection will be to national infrastructure and the ability to combine educational programs with the university,” said Brig.-Gen. Cohen. “Our ability to understand that in cyber, the boundaries are very unclear and we need to combine forces in order to conquer them.”

By connecting the university, the military, big hi-tech companies and venture capitalists, ATP has become a self-sustaining eco-system for the technological future of Israel.

A poster child of what this tech ecosystem in the desert can truly produce is the Hydro Camel. Essentially an autonomous underwater vehicle that also acts as a drone, this submarine was designed and created by students at the Laboratory for Autonomous Robotics at BGU and was showcased at the conference.

The Hydro Camel, complete with cameras and sonar systems, is a mini-submarine that can patrol and search at depths of up to 300 meters. Alon Baruch, an electrical engineering graduate student at BGU and one of the designers and creators of the Hydro Camel, said that this invention can be used when searching for objects in the ocean. He cited the Malaysian airlines flight that went missing in 2014. “When you need to search a large area, you can easily send a couple of autonomous vehicles to do the job,” Baruch told The Media Line.

Hydro Camel can also detect, and even halt oil spills, Baruch claimed. While it is not the first autonomous underwater sea vehicle, it is one of the first of its kind that has the ability to hover in one place, allowing it to examine and photograph more than regular submarines.

With the IDF relocation and as the city of Beersheba continues to develop infrastructure and the technologies necessary to be a leading force in the cyber world, some of its former residents have thought about returning.
Hazaz, of Liacom Systems, stated that if the city continues advancing, he might move back for the benefit of his children.

Katie Beiter is a student journalist with The Media Line

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