|02 September, 2018

Drone start-ups take off in MENA

Drones have attracted their fair share of headlines in recent years. From being able to deliver small packages and fighting wildfires, to providing surveillance services and monitoring gas emissions in offshore oil rigs, the applications that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) can be used for appear to be far reaching. Even social media giant Facebook once floated the idea of using gigantic solar-powered drones to beam down high-speed Internet access to remote places worldwide.

“[Drone] is an example of a technology that is reshaping various elements of society today.  With an ability to enter areas humans and other machines have failed to, drones have incredible potential to transform all fields, like agriculture, retail, entertainment, transportation, and security,” said Dr. Saleh Al Hashemi, managing director at Krypto Labs.

The Abu Dhabi-based global start-up incubator has been an advocate of drone technology innovation. In July, it launched the Drone X Challenge 2018, a USD 1 million (AED 3.65 million) drone design competition.

Al Hashemi believes that while drone technology is just starting to take off, it is nonetheless on its way to offering one of the most productive and diverse uses of autonomous technology and robotics. This is all the more reason for Krypto Labs “to be at the forefront of evaluating and selecting drone technologies, which we feel will utterly transform society,” he added.

MENA start-ups to capitalize on UAV

According to Al Hashemi, majority of UAV development in the world is happening outside of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, primarily in Europe, China and North America.

“However, MENA start-ups capitalize on the applications that UAVs provide for [local needs], such as local data on agriculture, climate, security, transportation and logistics. And we expect that MENA start-ups are on their way to localize UAV development,” he noted.

Krypto Labs has worked with several drone start-ups globally, but Al Hashemi said some of the “interesting ones to watch” in the MENA region are UAE-based Space Autonomous Drones and Flugauto, as well as Saudi-based Firas Aero.

Multi-billion-dollar industry

Several studies have pointed to drone technology’s financial potential, including Reportlinker’s USD 21.47 billion projection by 2021, Goldman Sachs’ USD 30 billion forecast between 2016 and 2020, and PricewaterhouseCoopers’ estimate of USD 127 billion.

Alexandros Xydas, co-founder and head of business development at Dubai-based Flugauto, said the UAV market is a multi-billion-dollar opportunity that can only be unlocked if drone technology companies make air transport of goods as cost effective as local ground transportation.

“What excites us here at Flugauto, and what we are currently focusing on is a relatively untapped market, which is the use of UAVs for the transportation of cargo for industrial/commercial applications, mostly B2B,” Xydas explained.

“We are looking at solving the logistics challenges with the miles before the ‘last mile’, and doing this in a commercially viable (low cost) way.”

For Falcon Eye Drones, cost effectiveness and technological advancement are crucial to succeeding in the UAV space. Also based in Dubai, it is one of the first companies in the Middle East to use drone technology in mapping and inspections.

Today, Falcon Eye Drones specializes in providing businesses with advanced aerial solutions, including aerial photography, aerial video and filming, aerial survey and inspection, and 3D mapping. Its technology is used by industries, such as the oil and gas sector and the geographic information system (GIS) market.

“Our solutions are already making an impact on [GIS, energy and mining, precision agriculture, safety and security],” said Rabih Bou Rashid, managing director at Falcon Eye Drones.

“Drones are in an implementation phase and very mature in some applications, for example, mapping and surveying for the GIS market has been around for a few years and really disrupting the industry. We could easily see drones replacing ground equipment permanently.”

Drone technology not only increases operational efficiency as well as health and safety, it also helps companies save money, according to Rashid. In the oil and gas sector, for example, drones have allowed companies to inspect assets during regular preventive maintenance without the need to shut down operations.

Evolving regulations

Regulations surrounding drone technology has evolved significantly over the past years, with private companies and start-ups entering this space and governments showing increased appetite to enable innovation, said Dr. Frank Noppel, co-founder and CEO of Flugauto.

“We are still in the infancy of drone technology and regulation has a lot of catching-up to do in regards to allowing operations in and around metropolitan populated areas, but we are excited and eager to see how it evolves,” he said.

“In the UAE, regulatory [authorities are keen] to allow companies to demonstrate their technology and eventually [operate], but rightly so, are extra cautious and diligent in allowing operation of drones, particularly around populated areas where risk to property and people is high.”

Noppel also mentioned that there are many stages of approval and certification that drone companies have to go through, but UAV players are working closely with regulators to shape the sector.

“Flugauto, as well as many in the drone technology community, have our eyes on the UAE, and Dubai specifically. [We] believe this will be the place where the first commercial application will take place,” he said.

 

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