UAE testing drones for fighting fires and delivering drugs at Dubai Airshow

Unmanned aerial vehicles of every shape and size on display at Al Maktoum International Airport

Drones will soon become commonplace for fighting fires, delivering medical supplies and industrial surveillance, according to experts at the Dubai Airshow.

A collection of unmanned aerial vehicles of every size was on display at the five-day exhibition, which started on Sunday at Al Maktoum International Airport.

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Drone development will open a lot of career opportunities, in drone manufacturing, in autonomous software development, training pilots and aeronautical engineers
Mohammed Shawky, GeoDrones Aerial Services

Matternet, a US logistics company with a wealth of experience in drone deliveries, including medical samples, under its belt, had its urban model on display.

"Our company has been flying since 2014. Since 2016 we've been doing 'beyond-visual-line-of-sight' (BVLOS) flights, which essentially means that there isn't someone on the ground who always has eyes on the aircraft," said Jon Michaeli, head of global business development for the company.

"We've been doing BVLOS flights in Switzerland over the cities of Lugano and Zurich, and we have operations with UPS in the US, and operations coming in Germany."

The drone manufacturer and operator is also working with the Department of Health - Abu Dhabi and logistics company SkyGo to create an aerial network to deliver medical supplies around the city.

More than 40 drones will be used to transport medicines and medical samples weighing up to 2 kilograms to and from hospitals and laboratories, starting in the first half of 2022.

Matternet hopes the automated system will soon become commonplace, and used by a variety of industries, from e-commerce to food.

"We started with healthcare because of the high value of shipments, and delivering them with speed is important," said Mr Michaeli.

"What we solve is problems with traffic and congestion. The aircraft fly on their own, they have pre-programmed routes and they follow those routes.

"We even have a geofence, which is essentially an invisible tube around the aircraft, and if for some reason the aircraft leaves that tube, it knows, and it can deploy a parachute and float to the ground."

At present aerial delivery is costly and the regulatory hurdles are high, but with economies of scale drones are a viable option, said Mr Michaeli.

"The more you fly the cheaper it gets. The unit economics are very comparable to courier delivery, or even cheaper, as you scale."

A high-flying sector

Aerial surveillance and mapping is also a key sector for companies developing smaller drones.

Mohammed Shawky is the founder and chief executive of GeoDrones Aerial Services, a UAE-based software company exhibiting at the Dubai Airshow for the first time, in the start-up category.

He believes construction companies and the oil and gas sector are potential markets for growth.

"The oil and gas sector has so many requirements for drones, from pipeline inspection to asset inspection and management," said Mr Shawky.

"For example, traditionally the flare stack inspection takes a month of shut-down, and you have to lay it down and do it manually, but using the drones we can save the asset from being shut down, save the company millions of dollars and do the inspection while the production is online and ongoing."

The global drone logistics and transport market, which was valued at $8.7 billion last year, is projected to reach $38.7bn by 2028, growing at an annual rate of 20.6 per cent, according to US research and consulting firm Verified Market Research.

Mr Shawky believes drone innovation will be a prolific job generator over the next decade.

"Drone development will open a lot of career opportunities, in drone manufacturing, in autonomous software development, training pilots and aeronautical engineers," said Mr Shawky.

"Here, at Dubai Airshow, we are seeing new customers from all over the world. We are creating some partnerships, creating new leads and we are seeking new investments."

Firefighting drones

While small, agile drones might be appropriate for deliveries and inspections, the UAE's Civil Defence service are holding trials of larger unmanned helicopters made by Aura UAV to fight fires.

The company has field-tested its Aura 100 helicopters to douse flames high up in skyscrapers or in the centre of industrial accidents when it is too dangerous to risk manned helicopters.

Ksenia Neuwirth, the managing director of Aura UAV, said its aerial machines could be used in a variety of sectors, as they could carry a payload of up to 100kg and hover at a height of 3,000 metres.

"We are testing the firefighting application because we can see big demand in the urban areas, in particular among the high-rise areas," said Ms Neuwirth, standing next to an Aura 100 at the airshow.

"We are the niche solution, we go above the height of the ladders. Above 100 to 120 metres it is dangerous for the firefighters, so the next elevation is us. We can go higher."

The machines can also be adapted for agriculture, where they can be used to plant crops or disperse fertiliser or pesticides, and other niche sectors, said Ms Neuwirth.

"We are interested in developing search and rescue missions for people who got stuck in the mountains or people who need to be rescued from the sea because we can drop inflatable boats and first aid," she said.

"We believe that for natural disasters and for emergency situations we could also be useful, because we can carry up to 100kg of payload, which is quite substantial, but at the same time we are unmanned, which means you do not risk the pilot's life."

Fighter jets and Boeing 777X take to the skies at Dubai Airshow

Updated: November 17th 2021, 1:58 PM
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