Gitex 2021: underwater drone helps Dubai Customs catch drug smugglers

Syaj mini-submarine can dive to 50 metres and detect contraband hidden in the hull of boats

Nawaf Saleh from Dubai Customs with a submarine drone at Gitex 2021 in Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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An underwater drone used to foil drug smugglers attempting to bring contraband into the UAE has gone on show at the Gulf Information Technology Exhibition (Gitex) in Dubai.

The Syaj mini-submarine, a remote-controlled drone for underwater surveillance, has been used by Dubai Customs since August 2020.

The discreet craft can travel at 15 kilometres per hour and has a range of about 30 metres from the controller.

Fitted with a 4K high-definition camera, it takes live video and clear photographs to enable investigators to complete a more thorough inspection of vessels arriving in the dock.

Normally if we want to inspect a boat we inspect the cabins and the decks but we have always faced challenges when trying to check underneath a vessel on its hull
Nawaf Hussein Habash Saleh, Dubai Customs

“We are looking for drugs that are sometimes attached to the bottom of boats,” said Dubai Customs inspection officer Nawaf Hussein Habash Saleh.

“The drone is used to inspect the wooden boats that come into Dubai Creek from Iran.

“Smugglers are always looking for new ways to smuggle goods into the UAE.

“Now, with this underwater submarine, we can take it as deep as 50 metres to do a more comprehensive scan of a boat.”

The drone is also used in the war on drugs at Jebel Ali Port, which has the capacity to handle 22 million freight containers a day.

Bags of pills, usually tramadol and Captagon, are common hauls – but officers are also on the lookout for explosives and other illegal contraband such as fake goods.

This year Dubai Customs intercepted a container in Jebel Ali in which three million Captagon pills were hidden among spare motor parts.

The drug is a powerful amphetamine, often used by soldiers in war-torn regions as it acts as a stimulant, boosting alertness, concentration and physical performance.

It is highly addictive and can lead to bouts of depression and serious heart problems and is illegal in the UAE.

In the first three months of 2021, customs officials intercepted 398 attempts to smuggle drugs into Dubai.

The Syaj drone monitoring unit has spotted bags of illegal pills strapped to the hull of wooden boats sailing in from Iran.

“This only uses cameras but with the experience of the inspection team it is very useful in detecting this kind of contraband," Mr Saleh said.

“Normally if we want to inspect a boat we inspect the cabins and the decks but we have always faced challenges when trying to check underneath a vessel on its hull.

“The images are relayed to our operations office and when they evaluate the images they decide if we need to investigate further."

Updated: October 24, 2021, 9:41 AM