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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

UAE students pitch practical applications for future drone use

Some of the projects include using drones to detect the impact of climate change and detecting corosin in piping

The Lockheed Martin lab at the Masdar City Institute where students work to create applications for drones.  Antonie Robertson / The National
The Lockheed Martin lab at the Masdar City Institute where students work to create applications for drones. Antonie Robertson / The National

Detecting the impact of climate change, tracking electricity and water usage and inspecting corrosion in pipelines are some of the missions UAE students have come up with to use drones in.

Six local university teams made up the finalists for the UAE Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Payload Design Challenge - a joint programme run by Lockheed Martin and Mubadala Investment Company.

Launched in March, the year-long initiative challenges university students to design, develop and integrate civilian and industrial applications for Lockheed Martin’s Indago - an unmanned aerial system renowned for its endurance and adaptability across different sectors including emergency response, national security, agriculture and commercial inspection.

“Drones are very mobile and user-friendly so anyone can use them for any personal purpose,” said Tayammum Alkatheeri, a 20-year-old Abu Dhabi native, who is currently working on developing a drone for corrosion inspection. “There are a lot of fields that drones can be employed in in our daily life. They make things safer and faster for people.”

He said safety was what any industry strives for. “It’s safer for whoever is doing the inspection, instead of being personally in the area of inspection, he can manipulate the drone for up to 12km away from the area,” said the graduate in petroleum geophysics from The Petroleum Institute. “We’re focusing on the oil and gas industry but we can expand to wind turbines as well as bridges and dams, the possibilities are almost limitless.”

He hopes to work in a related field in the future. “I’d like to develop a drone to perform magnetic surveying of the earth to detect hydrocarbon,” Mr Alkatheeri said. “Instead of having people going on with the equipment on large remote areas in the desert, we can just send a drone with the equipment - it can be done faster and with less effort. My professor said it needs development but it’s a good start.”

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For Mariam Al Nuaimi, a 21-year-old from Al Ain, finding a viable service for the UAE community was key. “We plan to collect water and electricity data from metres in houses,” said the graduate in aeronautical engineering from HCT. “Usually, a technician visits the place to get a reading but we’re developing a payload that will collect the data without the need for a technician.”

The idea stemmed from one of the team members whose father grew impatient waiting for a technician for the first 10 days of each month at his villa. “It was not practical,” said Ms Al Nuaimi. “Drones are the upcoming technology in the United States and in Europe - they use it in so many applications, it’s easier, you just send the drone and it gets the job done.”

The system will take two to three months to be developed and Al Ain Distribution Company is already a potential customer.

“The only thing that matters on any UAV is the payload,” said Shawn Racz, who heads up Lockheed Martin’s Innovation Centre at Masdar City and runs the programme from their side. “In a market of air vehicles, there’s a massive opportunity in the civil and private use on building the payload, which is why it’s such an ideal time to focus on this.”

He said the market was in need of such systems. “The purpose of a UAV is to carry something and do a mission,” he said. “We provide the students with access to our lab in Masdar, an additive manufacturing machine, which is a 3-D printer and [the ability] to draw, design and print them out immediately. They also have access to our 40 engineers to get suggestions and advice and Lockheed’s entire network. What we want to do is foster real innovation.”

The students were shortlisted from 63 projects. “Once they build it, the final stage will be to activate it during the innovation month next February,” said Fatima Al Marzouqi, Mubadala’s head of education and training in aerospace, renewables and ICT. “We will try to find a partner from the Government, like the police, to be able to implement it on the challenges they face.”

She said the initiative was part of the Abu Dhabi 2020 Vision to create a knowledge-based economy. “We saw a bit of a gap in the area of innovation so this project will lead in this,” she said. “Maybe they can open their own small companies or build their capabilities in a creative way to [learn] more about the areas, to be ready for the future and to find jobs in this field.”