August 01, 2016      

Every country is trying to become a global leader in robotics — and the United Arab Emirates is no exception. The UAE government is supporting robotics and artificial intelligence in multiple ways.

Like many Middle Eastern countries, the UAE has traditionally been an energy power. But, unlike other countries in the region, the emirates haven’t pegged their future to oil or natural gas. Instead, they have pursued diversifying their economy.

The UAE’s declining dependence on oil reflects this. In 1973, oil accounted for 90 percent of the country’s GDP. By 2014, this number was down to 30 percent.

As the UAE develops a new economy for the future, robotics is one of the industries in which it is investing. And it is doing so in multiple ways.

Flyability wins UAE Drones for Good award

The Drones for Good Award is presented by Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE, to the winning team Flyability.

Council and competitions

In 2014, the UAE government held a summit in Dubai’s Internet City. This summit focused on how technology will “reshape” government, with most attention given to robotic technologies such as aerial drones.

During the summit, the UAE launched a $1 million competition for the “UAE Drones for Good Award.” It attracted more than 800 submissions. The winner for that year (selected in 2015) was Lausanne, Switzerland-based Flyability SA, whose drone can operate in “confined spaces.”

Another winner will be named later this year.

Also in 2014, the UAE government partnered with the Global Agenda Council (GAC), which is part of the World Economic Forum (WEF). The council offers advice on how to take advantage of robotics and AI.

In 2015, the GAC launched a second competition called the “AI & Robots for Good Award.”

In the past, the UAE imported talent from abroad to build cities in the desert. Now, will its contests help build a new economy?

UAE government follows a robotics strategy

In 2014, the UAE unveiled its “National Innovation Strategy” to position itself as one of the most innovative nations in the world in the coming years. It calls for innovation in sectors including technology, transport, and energy.

The strategy also requires all government agencies to reduce spending by 1 percent and invest their savings into “research and innovation.” Could this investment lay the seeds for UAE-based robotic advancements?

This year, UAE government-backed investments in robotics have accelerated.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the ruler of Dubai, launched the Dubai Future Agenda.

In April, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the ruler of Dubai and the UAE’s vice president, launched the “Dubai Future Agenda,” which devotes Dh1 billion ($270 million) to invest in innovations. He also launched a “Future Cities” project to focus on infrastructure, energy, and transport.

In June, the UAE invested in drones. The Dubai Multi-Commodities Centre (DMCC), a free trade zone in the country, partnered with the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA) to develop and launch a “drone trading platform.” The goal is to make drone licensing easier and to ensure that the UAE captures the “commercial significance of drones.”

In July, Dubai announced a new initiative called “Dubai Future Accelerators,” which is part of the Dubai Future Agenda that seeks to connect global companies to government leaders with a key focus on robotics, AI, 3D printing, and more.

UAE government aims to be a robotics hub

Unlike in the U.S., Japan, and other countries where private companies are leading robotic advancements, in the UAE (like Germany), the government is creating the conditions to become a regional robotics hub.

The Emirati government leading this initiative means multiple things.

First, it means that robotics has reached a level in the world where policy makers and planners in the UAE are actively looking to establish a robotics industry at home. This is important when considering that most Middle Eastern governments don’t appear to be thinking about a future beyond energy. Will other countries follow the UAE’s lead by investing in robotics?

Second, unlike other countries where there is a “nationalist” incentive to invest in local companies over foreign companies, like in China or Japan, the UAE government’s goal is to rapidly develop and diversify.

In other words, it doesn’t care where a robotics company or idea comes from, as long as it helps the country. Does this present an opportunity for a robotics company seeking a new home?

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Finally, the UAE doesn’t appear to have any specific focus when it comes to robotics. For example, in Japan, the focus of robotics is automation, service robots, and humanoid robots.

When it comes to the UAE, the field is wide open — there is no predetermined robotics sector it is looking to lead or invest in. The government can invest across the board, in all kinds of robotics innovations (foreign and local) to create a world-class robotics sector at home.

Through its national strategies and competitions, the UAE government has selected robotics as a key future industry. Is there an opportunity in the UAE for you?

In my next article, we’ll look at how municipal and private-sector efforts are helping the UAE in its pursuit of robotics leadership.