Drones, primarily defense but many commercial, were showcased in plenty by most exhibitors at the World Defense Show in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh.
The Kingdom is hosting the defense show as part of its Vision 2030 aim to localize 50 percent of its military expenditure. Over 600 major names from 40 countries including Lockheed Martin, Airbus, and UAE’s EDGE have participated in the event.
One drone manufacturer, South African-origin Milkor group, has come to Riyadh with the intention of setting up an office in the city and selling to investors in the Kingdom. It already has local offices in India and the UAE and has been in the industry since 1981.
MC de Beer, CEO of Milkor for Saudi Arabia, said in an interview with Al Arabiya English that the company decided to set up shop locally since the visions of both the country and the company align.
But more importantly, Milkor is establishing an office in the Kingdom because the Saudi government “respects the importance of having a good defense sector,” according to the CEO.
He adds that the prospects of Saudi Arabia opening up to foreign companies and encouraging production in the country is “attractive” to Milkor as a company.
The drone in question is called the ‘UCAV’ and has surveillance and offensive capabilities. It features autonomous capabilities and can travel vertically up to 30,000 feet, and with the right setup and weather conditions, operate for 35 hours at a stretch.
The company CEO confirmed that local authorities have shown “good amounts of interest,” and conducted “back and forth” discussions, but declined to name the agencies involved or share a progress report.
This drone is a new product for Milkor, who is considering all opportunities to find a buyer.
The company reiterates that a thorough vetting process, including approval from the Saudi regulatory body GAMI (General Authority for Military Industries), in addition to information about the end user and the purpose, is mandatory since the product is classified as defense equipment capable of carrying weapons.
The same sentiment and due process is not shared by all manufacturers.
Autel Robotics, a Chinese-owned tech company that operates in the US, produces the Dragonfish series of eVTOL (Electric vertical take-off and landing) which has similar capabilities to the UCAV, but without a supplier-provided option to weaponize the commercially sold product.
With regard to ensuring responsible droning, Jon McBride, an Autel Robotics representative, confirmed to Al Arabiya English that the company relies on local third-party suppliers to conduct the appropriate background checks and vetting process before selling their products.
Recently, Forbes reported that Russian-backed separatists used Autel’s Evo 2 drones to “drop grenades on Ukrainian forces.”
The Evo 2 is a quadcopter with much lesser capabilities than the larger, more versatile Dragonfish series.
When asked about the implications of misuse, McBride agrees that “some people will do nefarious things with drones… people are not stupid, if they decide they’re going to put something bad on the bottom of the drone, that’s what they’re going to do.”
Casual flying of drones is not permitted in Saudi Arabia.
The General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) said in a statement published online that “corporations and institutions may obtain permits to operate drones after filing requests through the proper channels, and may use them only for strictly operational purposes, with each instance of their usage requiring a specific permit by GACA.”
In connection with this rule, when asked about the market for commercial drones in the Kingdom, McBride shared a positive outlook.
“I think we can definitely impact the market here,” he says, adding that trust will determine the future of droning and drone regulations in the Kingdom.
He says that demand for the product in the Kingdom has been considerable during the company’s time at the World Defense Show and calls for educating the public about the positive impact drones can have in society.
Despite McBride’s optimism, Saudi Arabia and some neighboring Gulf countries have in reality faced an increasing level of threat with bomb-laden drones.
Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi’s routinely target civilian sites in the Kingdom using drones, causing damage to property and a credible threat to life.
In order to fight this consistent threat, companies like Marss have designed full scale command center called NiDAR to include jammers, interference tech, and disabling gear across aerial, surface and underwater threats.
On Monday, Marss launched an anti-aircraft drone called the Interceptor that rams into aerial threats, potentially destroying the intruder while attempting to maintain body integrity for reuse.
January’s drone attack on an oil storage site near Abu Dhabi Airport in UAE is “another wake-up call,” Marss said in a press release.
The actual product has not been manufactured yet; a 3D printed prototype was on display, which the developers claim is cheaper to operate than a Raytheon-produced Patriot missile which reportedly costs $3 million.
The drone is controlled by an ecosystem of radars in and around the command center, explains Daniel Dineen, Lead Systems Engineer at Marss. Data is collated from machine learning software across Marss’ existing devices, in addition to on-board sensors.
Power stations, oil refineries, and ports are some common areas where the new system can be used.
With Marss, Stephen Scott, Head of R&D (Defense) said that buyers must go through certain levels of approval, including local government sponsorship, and an established credibility.
Additionally, the team’s terabytes of data can cross-check the threat level that an aircraft poses.
“We do have to be mindful of the safety implications of just anyone buying it,” says Scott. “We have to be a responsible organization.”
Scott also said that “regionally, drones are a threat” adding that similar instances can and will occur around the world in a short span, making systems like the ones developed by Marss, more significant.