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Dubai’s fledgling drone programme gets another nudge

Through a series of initiatives, Dubai is positioning itself to reap the benefits of a promising global market for drone technology

In November 2021, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, crown prince of Dubai, launched a programme to enable the use of drones for healthcare, security, shipping, food services and other sectors.  

This new programme is the most recent of several initiatives that have been created in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) overall.  

One of the more popular programmes has been UAE Drones for Good, which, since 2014, has run an annual international competition to encourage useful and positive applications for drone technology. The winner receives $1m. 

With the latest programme, the Dubai government is betting that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will not only facilitate the movement of goods and materials, but also reduce carbon emissions generated by traditional shipping and transportation methods. They are also counting on drone technology to create new jobs and boost the economy.

To this end, the government is trying to attract both local and foreign investment by creating friendly regulation and developing world-class infrastructure and local talent. 

A stretch goal for Dubai is to become a hub for the manufacture of unmanned aircraft. At the very least, the emirate wants to make it easier for public and private organisations to use such aircraft. 

The government said it aims to help innovators “come up with solutions for the world’s transportation challenges”. New infrastructure will be created to facilitate testing of prototypes of drone and remote-controlled aircraft, and new legislation will pave the way for implementation and deployment. 

This latest announcement is part of the larger Dubai Sky Dome Initiative, which will set aside airspace and infrastructure for drone systems connecting public spaces and buildings. Infrastructure will include airstrips, mini airports, and ground service sites throughout Dubai. An air traffic control system, Dubai Shield, will be set up to control the UAV traffic. 

Dubai has already passed regulation to make it easier for operators to get permits to operate drones and to request flight plans. And towards the country’s stretch goal, guidelines have been adopted to facilitate approval of engineering designs for unmanned aircraft. 

Read more about drones

If Dubai becomes a net exporter of drone systems, it will gain a share of a huge global market for delivery drones, which, according to coherentmarketinsights.com, will hit $5.6bn by 2028. But reaching its stretch goal could be quite a challenge given the stiff competition from western countries – and even the not-so-stiff competition from close neighbours such as Abu Dhabi. 

Big US companies such as Amazon, Wing Aviation and UPS Flight Forward have been developing technology for drone delivery for years. These companies are hoping to bring down the cost of the most expensive part of delivery – the so-called “last mile”. A single driver can only carry a few items, so thousands of drivers are needed to take products from warehouses and bring them to their final destination. 

Amazon, probably the company with the biggest stake in overall delivery, has been testing its drones since 2013. In December 2016, a trial was run in which a small number of customers were able to order products from the local fulfilment centre in Cambridge, UK.  

The retail giant already offers same-day delivery in many areas, using the old-fashioned method – drivers. With drone delivery, the company hopes to extend its offer to near-instant delivery – 30 minutes from click until the product is in the customer’s hands. The current generation of Amazon drones fly at an altitude of 400ft, and can carry up to 2.3kg, which limits the types of product that can be ordered. Strong winds and rainy weather also limit drone operation. 

Another challenge the company is working to overcome is making the final drop-off. One of the options is to have a designated location or a pad on the ground that can be sensed by equipment on the UAV. A winch could then be used to lower the product to the ground. 

The drones weigh about 25kg, which is a lot to worry about if one falls out of the sky. That is why Amazon has designed the systems to dismantle themselves in the event of a collision, so lighter parts fall to the ground. 

Home-grown delivery drone solutions

Given the state of the art in other parts of the world, a general strategy for Dubai and other members of the UAE is to encourage foreign companies with experience in a given area of technology to establish partnerships with one or more local companies. This approach is now being applied to drone technology in Dubai and in neighbouring Abu Dhabi.  

One such partnership was formed to help stimulate the development of drone delivery technology in Dubai. Skycart, a San Francisco-based drone company, set up a partnership with Dubai-based Eniverse Technologies in 2017 to develop drone delivery services in Dubai. Five years on, the service has yet to take off.

This may be an indication that the emirate is finding the same thing that some western providers had already discovered – the current cost and hassle of drone delivery is justified only in cases where there is life-saving potential. 

A neighboring emirate may have learned from Dubai’s mistake. Abu Dhabi is also encouraging partnerships between foreign and local companies in the hope of growing its own ecosystem of developers. One such partnership was announced last September between California-based Matternet and UAE-based Skygo to provide healthcare delivery services. 

Matternet has been operating beyond-line-of-site drone systems since 2017, delivering high-value medical products, including the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in the US. Matternet will operate in Abu Dhabi under a Skygo licence, and the two companies will work with the Abu Dhabi Department of Health to develop a drone delivery network for rapid transport of medical goods in Abu Dhabi. 

Could Dubai be turning towards medical delivery as the killer app it needs for drone tecnology? It’s starting to look that way. Last month, Dubai hosted the Middle East’s largest healthcare event – Arab Health 2022 – and Matternet was featured in the Abu Dhabi stand. 

“Dubai is a place that likes to innovate and show the rest of the world how things are done and can be done,” said Jon Michaeli, global head of sales and business development at Matternet. “And there is an appetite for investing for the future. This makes Dubai a good region for early adoption of these technologies.”

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