Sky is the limit for UAE's young talent

UAE universities are joining hands with the private sector to fast-track Abu Dhabi's technical expertise in aerospace.

In May, the rodeo is coming to town - not with lassos and bucking broncos, but with machines hovering above the ground and piloted by remote control-wielding students.

This will be an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) rodeo - a competition to design and operate UAVs.

The project is a collaboration between the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis, the defence company Northrop Grumman, Abu Dhabi Autonomous Systems Investments and the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT).

It highlights a major trend in the country. As the Government works to transform the economy, it is increasingly taking steps to foster an equally dramatic transformation of its academic institutions.

Under the country's plans, oil and gas revenues are to be supplemented by industrial products such as chemicals, plastics, steel, aluminium and high-end aerospace parts and services. This will require critical numbers of engineers and technicians, preferably Emiratis.

The manpower requirements are staggering, not only for these new industries, but also to staff the growing nuclear energy sector and existing oil and gas and telecommunications industries.

Perhaps nowhere are plans so advanced as in aerospace. Abu Dhabi has encouraged local development companies to link up with international companies to build a successful and thriving cluster encompassing manufacturing, design and engineering and maintenance.

These types of partnerships are taking place with academic institutions to quickly expand technical research programmes.

Last year HCT began a Master's programme with an emphasis on systems engineering that will support the aerospace and defence fields. The programme received assistance from Raytheon, the defence giant.

Also last year, Khalifa University launched its first undergraduate programme in aerospace engineering, with plans to add a Master's programme soon.

An example of the university's fine-grained technical focus can be seen in the publications of Professor JVR Prasad, the chair of the aerospace engineering department, which include tongue-twisters such as "Prediction of Vortex Ring State Boundary of a Helicopter in Descent Flight by Non-linear Flight Dynamic Simulation", and "Minimum-time Approach to Obstacle Avoidance Constrained by Envelope Protection for Autonomous UAVs".

Prof Tod Laursen, the president of Khalifa University, says students will learn concepts such as flight control, fluid flow aspects of how air moves around an air foil, structural mechanics and the use of various materials to create airframes.

"These are all really challenging problems and ones that attract the smart students," says Prof Laursen.

The UAE is not setting itself to become a low-cost leader in aerospace. That would require labour-intensive operations that would not serve Abu Dhabi's 2030 plans.

Instead, it wants to focus on automation and precision through investments in expensive equipment to produce such things as composite aircraft parts.

So technological leadership is key. Alessandro Borgogna, a principal with Booz & Company based in Dubai, says innovation is "one of the most important things to succeed" in the aerostructures and aerospace industry.

And if the UAE capital became known as a centre of excellence, that could attract young talented Emiratis and facilitate a migration of top-notch scientists and researchers into the emirate, Mr Borgogna says.

In explaining South Korea's recent rise as a global aerospace player, Dr Han Jae-Hyun, an aerospace researcher at Korea's Transportation Institute, also cites education as a strong factor in the way governmental-sponsored research projects between institutes and universities spurred research.

Mubadala Development, a strategic investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government, is playing an important role, bringing in the training arm of Airbus to partner with the Institute of Applied Technology and prepare local Emirati technicians for careers in aircraft parts production.

It has also sponsored students to train with Nasa in the US, and is planning an aerospace research and innovation centre together with Khalifa University. Mubadala also holds hopes to bring Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a world leader in aerospace training, to set up a campus in the Emirates.

The technical foundation Mubadala is helping to build "will allow innovation and technical creativity to flow into the industry", says Homaid al Shemmari, the executive director of Mubadala Aerospace.

In a similar vein, Tawazun Holding, UAE University and Tawteen, the Emiratisation agency, announced a partnership last week to provide training and job opportunities for 60 UAE nationals every year.

A number of foreign companies are also active: Dassault has formed a partnership with Khalifa University on 3D design; Boeing has helped to shape curricula at HCT; and Northrop Grumman is in talks to collaborate with New York University's Abu Dhabi campus.

With an eye on the future, Mubadala has launched a website called UAE Aerospace Education, at

As the provost of HCT Dr Mark Drummond puts it, successful workforce development requires getting students hooked on aerospace science and technology early - as far back as primary school.