AI has changed defence industry expectations, says Edge executive

Artificial intelligence provides great opportunities and challenges for autonomous technology, UAE defence conglomerate tells Umex

Ahmed Al Khoori, senior vice president for strategy and excellence at Edge Group, spoke to The National on the sidelines of Umex. Victor Besa / The National
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Artificial intelligence poses major challenges as well as opportunities for UAE defence conglomerate Edge, a senior executive has said.

“It is a challenge for us to keep up with the pace but we’re up to the challenge,” Ahmed Al Khoori, senior vice president of strategy and excellence at Edge, told The National in an interview on Wednesday.

He was speaking on the sidelines of the Unmanned Systems Exhibition and Conference (Umex) and Simulation and Training Exhibition (Simtex), showcasing the latest developments in autonomous aerial technology, drones, robots and unmanned systems.

Edge has one of the largest footprints at the exhibition, which organisers expect to attract about 18,000 visitors from around the world.

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Generative AI has changed the expectations for autonomous defence technology, which was already trying to navigate and ride the wave of change in the fast-evolving field of defence technology, Mr Al Khoori said.

“Now, when we think of an autonomous system we don’t think of a remotely weaponed product, but a product that can do more sophisticated scenarios or operations. So at the end of the day, the user will have a system that can operate autonomously, that can decide for the end user,” he said, noting the continually changing landscape of autonomous defence technology amid the onslaught of generative AI developments.

Edge was founded in 2019, consolidating approximately 25 UAE companies under one umbrella with the goal creating an aggressive plan to build advanced technology for weapons systems, cyber protection and electronic warfare.

Autonomous and unmanned aerial technology has proven to play a significant role in the years since the company was established.

“We have a wide spectrum of autonomous products and it’s not only for executing a target, but also saving people from a civilian perspective as well,” Mr Al Khoori said, addressing the misconceptions people might have about autonomous or unmanned aerial vehicles.

“Most of our products are for defence use but some of them have been developed for multiple operations for civil defence,” he said, referring to cargo drones that can be used for humanitarian purposes, firefighting drones, or other products than can assist with search and rescue.

On Monday, the first day of the exhibition, Edge unveiled a product fitting with those themes, a new drone helicopter that can operate in rough terrain, fly to remote locations and deliver payloads for humanitarian relief of up to 300kg.

However, fears persist about how AI-based drone technology might increase numbers of casualties in various conflicts around the world.

Those concerns are paramount at Edge, which is trying to stay ahead of the curve and prevent such scenarios from playing out, Mr Al Khoori said.

“We have to really work hard to develop the right level of algorithms when it comes to AI to make sure that the collateral damage has been reduced dramatically,” he said.

“We have to make sure those autonomous systems can execute their mission in the right form and in an ethical form.”

Mr Al Khoori said he anticipates that most, if not all, Edge products will be driven by AI in the next two to three years.

Amid the efforts to infuse AI into most aspects of its portfolio, the company will continue to diversify its product offerings, he added.

“We went from 30 to approximately 160 products,” he said, emphasising that at least 70 of those were related to the autonomous sector.

Meanwhile, interest and growth in the autonomous defence industry shows no sign of slowing down, with revenue from the unmanned systems sector expected to hit $4.2 billion this year, according to Statista, a global data and business intelligence platform.

On Tuesday, Edge group Milrem Robotics, a developer of autonomous systems, announced a contract to supply 20 robotic combat vehicles and 40 unmanned ground vehicles to the Ministry of Defence.

"Under the terms of the contract, Milrem Robotics will lead an experimentation and trial programme aimed at integrating unmanned ground capabilities into the UAE Armed Forces arsenal," Edge said in a statement.

The agreement represents the world's largest combat robotics programme, according to Edge.

As for what might next be on the company's horizon, Mr Al Khoori offered some hints of what to expect.

“Recently, we introduced a new cluster in our company called the ‘space and cyber’ cluster,” he said. “It’s quite new and we’re still working on strategising our space programmes, and in the near future you’ll hear something in that regard.”

Updated: January 25, 2024, 8:07 AM