x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Drones are becoming the vehicle of choice

A group of Emirati students were honoured in the US yesterday after winning a competition to design the best drone.

Some Innovation Challenge participants from the UAE speak with conference attendees in Washington. Courtesy Northrop Grumman Corp
Some Innovation Challenge participants from the UAE speak with conference attendees in Washington. Courtesy Northrop Grumman Corp

WASHINGTON, DC // Emirati students who won a contest to design a drone aircraft will present their projects to industry executives and government officials today at the world's largest unmanned-technologies trade show.

Teams from Dubai Men's College and Al Ain College won the competition in Abu Dhabi in May to design, build and fly a small drone. They were mentored by engineers from Northrop Grumman, one of the biggest defence companies in the United States.

Over three years, 212 Emirati students have participated in Northrop Grumman's "Innovation Challenge" design competition, which is hosted by the Abu Dhabi Autonomous Systems Investments (Adasi) and Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT).

"These types of highly technical, multidisciplinary projects in aerodynamics and aerospace will help shape the UAE's future capabilities [in unmanned technologies]," Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador, said on Tuesday.

Northrop Grumman's outreach to young Emiratis underscores one of the central themes of the three-day conference: US defence companies specialising in unmanned systems are increasingly looking to foreign markets, especially the Middle East, as demand in the region grows and Washington continues to slash military spending.

Drone technologies are believed to be safe from the nearly US$1 trillion (Dh3.67tn) cut in military spending slated for the next decade because they are seen as integral to the future of warfare.

"The whole idea behind unmanned systems is that you can still get the mission accomplished with less manpower," said Michael Blades, a defence analyst with Frost & Sullivan consultants.

But speaking at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's trade show on Tuesday, Dyke Weatherington, the US defence department's unmanned warfare director, said "we will see reductions" to contracts for unmanned weapons that will hit hardest in the 2015 budget cycle.

The Pentagon has already cut $1 billion from its unmanned weapons budget for next year.

Mr Blades said the US military was mainly investing in upgrading the capabilities of the drones they already have rather than investing in the new developments.

"Without department of defence dollars everybody is trying to make their systems capable of being sold elsewhere and the Middle East is hugely important," Mr Blades said, adding that the sale of unarmed Predator drones to the UAE this year was a "game changer".

The UAE is one of few countries in the region the US will sell such systems to, and the nation is looking to expand its indigenous defence industrial base, which includes drone technology development.

"The Adasi programme is part of the future of the UAE … and that's why the HCT are training the future generation of Emiratis to participate in companies that are going to use US products and services, and Northrop Grumman is here on the ground partnering and transferring [expertise and technology]," Michael Corbin, the US ambassador to the UAE, said at the May drone competition.

While the UAE is the only country in the Arabian Gulf with a Predator drone, every large country in the region is looking to buy similar systems and develop their own drones, according to a recent report by Frost & Sullivan.

It is difficult to verify Iran's claims about its drones programme, but the country has captured a stealth US drone, which may have increased its capabilities, according to Frost & Sullivan.

Worries about Iran's drones and nuclear programme as well as the continuing unrest in the greater Middle East are driving the push for strategically important drones.

"UAVs can offer smaller states a way to expand their strength beyond traditional capabilities," the report stated.

The major US arms exporters could see growing competition.

Turkey and Pakistan both have advanced drones programmes and do not have the same restrictions on sales as US companies, said Mahendran Arjunraja, a Bangalore-based defence analyst specialising in the drone market.

Mr Arjunraja said he also expected China to begin exporting small drones in five to ten years.