Maker of unmanned aircraft hovers over new UAE deals

Schiebel of Austria seeks more contracts in the Middle East for its unmanned aerial vehicles

Schiebel, the Austrian defence company, is seeking more contracts in the Middle East for its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) after nearing the end of deliveries on its 60-aircraft deal with the UAE Armed Forces. The focus comes as military and national security planners around the world shift to unmanned systems to lower costs and expand coverage of aerial reconnaissance activities to include critical assets such as power plants, oil and gas pipelines and refineries.

"There is a great deal of interest from a number of countries in the region - a couple are in the critical phases now, while others are in the early marketing phases," said Neil Hunter, the managing director for sales and strategy for Schiebel. The Vienna-based company, which also produces mine detectors, said the UAE was its first major contract and proved its products were able to withstand the hot and high-altitude conditions of the Middle East.

Schiebel has delivered 56 of 60 Camcopter S-100 UAVs to the Emirates, according to Wolfgang Steigberger, the regional sales manager at Schiebel. The company declined to give a cost for the aircraft but said it was 10 times cheaper than another well-known UAV, Northrop Grumman's Fire Scout, which the military data provider says costs about US$15 million (Dh55m). Together, the two products have helped gain acceptance for helicopter-based UAVs, Mr Hunter said. "There has been a lot of scepticism and disbelief when it comes to unmanned helicopters but the likes of us and Northrop Grumman have proved they have a lot to offer."

Schiebel has formed a partnership with Abu Dhabi Autonomous Systems Investments to customise the platform with specific payload and operational characteristics into a system called Al Sber. There has been a significant growth of UAVs in active military theatres, Mr Hunter said. "There is a shift in emphasis to unmanned systems because they do the dull, the dangerous and the dirty tasks that you can avoid being done by humans," he said.

The US, which has the largest military budget in the world, said its army would move to operating mostly unmanned aircraft over the next 25 years. But Schiebel said civilian sector opportunities could be even larger. "This area is probably going to see the fastest growth before any of the other sectors," Mr Hunter said. The rise of border protection agencies is likely to increase the civilian market. One could be the UAE's Critical National Infrastructure Authority, which is tasked with protecting more than 24 facilities across the country and recently signed for 34 interceptor boats to protect offshore oil and gas installations.

While the initial UAV contract with the Emirates is nearing its conclusion, Schiebel is optimistic it may lead to other opportunities, including a logistics, training and sustainment contract for the 60 aircraft, which have a lifespan of 15 years.