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UAE invests in drones, robots as unmanned warfare takes off

The UAE is ploughing money into drones, robots and unmanned weaponry as autonomous warfare becomes more widespread.

Armed robotic vehicle. — © AFP
Armed robotic vehicle. — © AFP
Mohamad Ali Harissi

The United Arab Emirates is ploughing money into drones, robots and other unmanned weaponry as autonomous warfare becomes more and more widespread — including in attacks on the Gulf country by Yemeni rebels.

Large, black drones with the orange logo of EDGE, the UAE’s arms consortium, were on display at this week’s Unmanned Systems Exhibition (UMEX), along with remote-controlled machineguns and other “smart” weapons.

The exhibition comes at a time of growing unmanned attacks around the region, including the January 17 drone-and-missile assault by Yemen rebels that killed three oil workers in Abu Dhabi, the first in a series of similar incidents.

“Autonomous systems are becoming ever more prevalent around the world,” Miles Chambers, EDGE’s director of international business development, told AFP.

“We are really heavily investing in developing our autonomous capability… as well as in electronic warfare and in our smart munitions. These are our three pillars.”

EDGE, an Abu Dhabi-based defence consortium that groups 25 Emirati firms, was formed three years ago but reached an estimated $4.8 billion in arms sales in 2020 — nearly all of them to the UAE government.

EDGE drones were on display at the UMEX exhibition in Abu Dhabi. — © AFP

The group was ranked 23rd among the 100 top arms-producing and military services around the globe in 2020, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The UAE is part of the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting Yemen’s Huthi rebels since 2015. Although it withdrew ground troops in 2019, it remains a key player in the grinding conflict.

EDGE’s most lucrative deals have included maintenance of military jets, worth almost $4 billion, as well as providing guided munitions at $880 million.

On Tuesday, it unveiled a vehicle-mounted remote-controlled assault rifle that can swivel 360 degrees and has thermal imaging and a laser range finder accurate to 50 centimetres for targets more than two kilometres (1.2 miles) away.

EDGE was looking at “expanding our international footprint” in 2022, said Chambers.

– ‘Step up’ –

The use of drones and other unmanned weapons is increasingly common.

Last year the United States and Israel said an Iranian drone attacked a ship managed by an Israeli billionaire as it sailed off Oman. Two crew were killed.

In November, Iraq’s prime minister survived an attack by a bomb-laden drone, and according to reports, Israel’s 2020 assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist was carried out using a remote-controlled machinegun mounted on a pick-up truck.

Drones are also favoured by Yemen’s Huthis.

In December, the coalition said the insurgents had fired more than 850 attack drones and 400 ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia in the past seven years, killing 59 civilians.

Remote-control terminals are used to operate unmanned weapons. — © AFP

That compares with the 401 coalition air raids carried out in January alone over Yemen, according to the Yemen Data Project, an independent tracker which reported around 9,000 civilian deaths from the strikes since 2015.

Ahmed Al Mazrouei, owner of an Emirati company that mainly develops four-wheel drive vehicles and personnel carriers, said the UAE defence industry was ready to “step up” following the attacks on Abu Dhabi.

“The challenges are important because they push us to develop ourselves in order to meet those challenges,” he said.

“Our goal is to have more systems and more tech” in the next 10 years, Mazrouei added. “This is an Emirati-made production… and we want to compete globally.”

EDGE has signed multiple deals with foreign partners, including US firms Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, and Brazil’s Embraer, Khalid Al Breiki, who heads one of EDGE’s five clusters, told AFP at last year’s Dubai Airshow.

The establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020 has also opened up new opportunities.

The fifth edition of UMEX is the first to include Israel, one of seven newcomers among the 26 countries taking part.

On Monday, the UAE defence ministry signed three deals with domestic and international companies with a total value of more than 654.6 million dirhams ($178.2 million), including a 10 million dirhams sale of drone systems to UAE-based International Golden Group.

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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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