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Col. Yaniv Avitan, a graduate of the Jerusalem College of Technology’s (JCT) Electro-Optics Engineering Department, received the 2018 Israel Defense Prize from the Israeli Ministry of Defense for his role heading a team that works to detect the Hamas terror group’s cross-border attack tunnels.

This marks the second consecutive year and the fourth time in the past decade that a JCT graduate has received this prestigious award. Avitan is head of the Collection and Assault Unit of the Technological Division of the Ground Forces of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). His team developed "The Brain" which is a nickname for the laboratory they established in 2016 and in the last two years has located nine of Hamas’s underground tunnels that were dug from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory. The team includes experts from the IDF, the Ministry of Defense, academic institutions, and the defense industry.

As modern electro-optics applications are increasingly implemented in electronics, modern communications, medicine, data processing, energy, and especially the security field, JCT’s electro-optics department prepares professionals for R&D work by providing them with a strong foundation in applied physics, electronics, and computers. Graduates of the electro-optics program master the planning of optical systems and instruments, lasers and other light sources, photoelectric light detectors, electro-optic light modulation, holography, devices for television photography as well as night vision devices, and computer assisted lens design.

The threat of Hamas’s cross-border tunnel network was particularly prominent during Israel’s 2014 summer war in Gaza. The IDF destroyed more than 30 of the so-called “terror tunnels” during that conflict, but the military continues to discover and dismantle the tunnels today, several years after Operation Protective Edge.

Avitan, aged 42, grew up in Netivot and lives in Sderot, both situated in southern Israel near the Gaza border—meaning the tunnel threat and other forms of terrorism have long been a reality of his daily life. He has researched the Hamas tunnels since 2013.

“We developed an algorithm into which data was fed, combined with assessments of the security situation and decisions about where to drill, where to dig, where to attack, and what to handle,” says Avitan. “The breakthrough was not only technological, but also in the way people worked - technology professionals left their laboratories and went out in the field, in complete contrast to the norms of their military service. Various defense industries joined the Lab. There were great challenges, but everyone went full steam ahead. We are pretty confident in the method. It speaks for itself when it comes to locating tunnels.”

Avitan calls his team’s tunnel-detection breakthrough “a highlight of my career.” When asked why he chose to stay in the army when using his skills to develop a start-up could potentially make him millions, Avitan simply stated that the fields outside of the army "can't provide the sense of meaning that IDF service offers."

“The most dramatic moment was the first time the system proved itself,” he recalls. “You hit the tunnel and it’s very exciting. As a resident of the area, I understand very well what this means for civilians. The tunnel that we most recently detected (about a month ago) threatened the lives of IDF soldiers and residents of the Gaza vicinity. It was discovered a short distance from where my family lives."

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