Dubai Customs innovates with drones, AI and the Metaverse to secure UAE’s borders

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From floating drones, underwater robots, predictive AI and an expansion in the Metaverse – Dubai Customs is embracing innovation as it steps up its mission to safeguard the UAE’s borders.

From the threat of smugglers to illegal trade, the Gulf city’s border control authority is using highly innovative technology to thwart criminal activity, while also making investments to streamline the shipment of goods coming in and out of the country.

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The Customs Dolphin - a marine robot that resembles the dolphin in shape – is equipped  with advanced technologies including a waterproof 12 megapixel 4k camera, attached to a robotic arm that can move around to cover a 220-degree angle (Supplied: Dubai Customs)
The Customs Dolphin - a marine robot that resembles the dolphin in shape – is equipped with advanced technologies including a waterproof 12 megapixel 4k camera, attached to a robotic arm that can move around to cover a 220-degree angle (Supplied: Dubai Customs)

Speaking to Al Arabiya English, Khalid al-Zarooni, head of innovation at Dubai Customs, said: “Innovation is a huge part of our mission at Dubai Customs to protect our society, to facilitate trade and to enhance the economy.”

“Innovation is one of our major values, along with of course, compliance and facilitation.”

A lot of the ideas, he said, has come from submissions made by employees within Dubai Customs.

Dubai Customs' inspection buggy (Supplied)
Dubai Customs' inspection buggy (Supplied)

“One of our strongest points in Dubai Customs is the culture that we’ve built here; the culture of innovation and the culture of motivation, where we always encourage our employees from all levels, from all nationalities to submit their improvement ideas, their developmental ideas, their innovative ideas.”

Marine robots

One such suggestion was the Dubai Customs Dolphin - a marine robot that resembles the dolphin in shape – equipped with advanced technologies including a waterproof 12-megapixel 4k camera attached to a robotic arm that can move around to cover a 220-degree angle.

The submarine can swim at a speed of 8 knots or 16 km/hour, record live videos and take high-resolution stills. It can also scan certain spots underwater with the help of GPS. Its range of control and streaming is around 1,000 meters.

Inspectors can control the customs dolphins remotely and send them to monitor marine vessels and their movements before they enter the port. This tech enables customs officials to detect any attempts made by the vessels to get rid of prohibited goods before they enter the inspection pier.

Dubai Customs inspectors thwart the smuggling of 12.5 kg of marijuana concealed in the bag lining of a passenger traveling into Dubai International Airport. (Supplied)
Dubai Customs inspectors thwart the smuggling of 12.5 kg of marijuana concealed in the bag lining of a passenger traveling into Dubai International Airport. (Supplied)

The marine robot recently helped in the seizure of illegal goods in the UAE, al-Zarooni said.

Deterrence drones

Another suggestion that turned into reality is the customs deterrence drone. This innovation is transforming previously challenging inspection procedures on traditional wooden dhow ships where smugglers apparently hide things in the bulkheads as well as in hidden compartments.

“We really hesitate to send inspectors, even our canine units - any organic life at all - to go down there when we do inspections for suspicious or dangerous goods,” al-Zarooni said.

Then, a member of Dubai Customs suggested a hovering drone.

“It’s a smart drone that we send into wooden dhow ships, which has traditionally posed a major challenge for us,” he said. “The conventional dhow ships that come to the creek, can present very dangerous situations especially in the cargo holds… the flooring is very unstable and sometimes there are dangerous toxins there.”

“Drone technology has reached such a level where the drone itself can be very stable midair,” said al-Zarooni. “The drone is almost unmovable, and it can be controlled by GPS. It can be fitted with various scanners and high-definition cameras.”

“So, we prototyped a drone and protected it with a cage. We sent it down into one of the cargo holes and it’s a very successful pilot test project and we’re going to be implementing that as part of our inspection procedures in the future.”

“Each inspector might have his own personal drone that he can send whenever he needs to inspect certain zones.”

Utilizing Artificial Intelligence

This year, more new technology will be deployed as Dubai Customs continue deterring smugglers while simultaneously streamlining services for companies bringing trade in and out of the country, al-Zarooni said.

“We are trying to implement more AI into our procedures. For example, there’s something called robotic process automation, which speeds up certain declarations” on goods.

“We have a digital system now for declaration. This robotic process automation really harnesses the power of AI to speed up the declaration clearance and certain other operations when it comes to customers or clients declaring their items online.”

“We are also trying to implement AI in a way to understand our clients more. So, sort of an official recognition system which helps us understand their pain points.”

“AI can help with that through image analysis and facial recognition.”

Identifying early threats

Predictive AI will also be utilized to help Dubai Customs be equipped with “early threat assessment” of shipments on cargo ships into the UAE, said al-Zarooni.

“It’ll give us sort of an early warning system about certain things that we might have been suspicious of before.”

Entering the Metaverse

The metaverse has been touted as the next big leap in tech. And Dubai Customs, aiming to be ahead of the curve, are planning an online presence in the interactive virtual space, joining the likes of Google, Amazon, and other Dubai government bodies.

This is in line with the Dubai Metaverse Strategy which was launched by Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed in July 2022. The strategy aims to contribute $4 billion to Dubai’s economy within five years and to support 40,000 virtual jobs, striving to position the emirate as one of the world’s top 10 players in the metaverse economy.

“Yes, we’re experimenting with the metaverse as well,” said al-Zarooni. “There’s going to be a major presence from certain government organizations on the metaverse - whether it’s providing services or providing awareness to (partners) looking to have a presence in the metaverse as well to speed up our customer service increase our customer happiness even more.”

“What really impresses me and makes me proud is the city of Dubai and the leadership of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum really is a major inspiration for us because he loves innovation, and he believes that innovation is the engine for the future.”

Dubai Customs recently organized the “Future Foresight Forum” during the UAE Innovation Month 2023 in support of the “UAE Vision 2031” and “Dubai Economic Agenda D33” targets. The forum was aimed at exploring the future of customs and success factors for customs services. Attendees included Ahmed Mahboob Musabih, Director General of Dubai Customs and CEO of Ports, Customs and Free Zone Corporation, as well as representatives from several business sectors.

The forum was themed “Innovating Together for a Sustainable Economy” and supervised by the Client Happiness Department with support from the Strategy and Corporate Excellence Department and the Service Innovation Department. Representatives from foreign diplomatic bodies and strategic partners also participated in the forum.

Workgroups were formed, consisting of traders and investors from different business sectors, to share opinions and ideas on the most effective ways to tackle future challenges and transform them into accomplishments.

Discussions involved groups representing a variety of industries, including electronics, supply chain and logistics, the Indian Business Council, the National Association of Freight and Supply, the Trademark Owners Protection Group, the Dubai Gold and Jewelry Group, the Dubai Computer Group, the Fruit and Vegetable Traders Group, the Retail Business Group, as well as multinational companies. The workgroups presented high-quality ideas to improve customs work, leading to a new starting point in Dubai Customs’ efforts to develop and provide top-notch customs services and facilities.

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