September 16, 2015      

The United Arab Emirates recently launched a high-profile global competition to promote innovation in robotics and artificial intelligence, with the winner to be awarded $1 million and the winners of a further competition at the national level to receive AED 1 million ($270,000 U.S.).

The key objective of the initiative, known as the UAE AI & Robotics Award for Good competition, is to support innovation in robotics and AI as part of the country’s recent commitment to a national innovation strategy. It aims to promote research and the application of “innovative solutions” to meet domestic and international challenges in the health, education, and social services sectors.

The contest is open to submissions from individuals, teams, universities, and companies from around the world until Nov. 1, 2015. The proposals will then be assessed by a panel of “global experts” (the composition of which is yet to be announced).

Ten applicants from each category will be selected for the semi-finals in Dubai, where they must present a working prototype. The semi-finalists will be announced Nov. 22. The eventual winners will then be honored at a glitzy ceremony in February 2016 before a scheduled fourth summit of the UAE government.

Update: As of April 25, 2016, the finalists include Suit-X, B-Motion, Biomimetic Robotics Lab, RE-ACT, Andros Robotics, and Al-Murshid Al-Thaki.

The UAE looks ahead to industrial automation
The Robotics Award for Good competition is the “first of its kind,” said Ehteshamuddin Puttur A., co-founder and CEO at UAE-based robotics company Junkbot Inc. He added that the contest “is very welcome in the country because robotics and AI are “not only significant, but one of the most significant topics of the future.”

The initiative follows the National Innovation Strategy launched by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, to make the UAE one of the most innovative countries in the world by the year 2021. The UAE also plans to launch a robotic probe named Hope to Mars by 2021.

“We expect that the national universities will play a major role in the success of this global event by encouraging students to be involved in research and development and compete with the most advanced universities and research institutions in the world,” said Al Maktoum.

“The competition has the key objectives of creating a global platform for innovation, focusing mainly on the practical applications of robotics that are more close to society and its wellness, like healthcare, education, social services, the environment, transport, and tourism,” Ehteshamuddin said.

“As an entrepreneur, I believe this competition will help educate people how important these sectors are and by encouraging citizens to think about these issues,” he said. “The government is creating an environment that could cultivate entrepreneurs focusing on robotics and AI.”

In Ehteshamuddin’s view, these technologies are likely to be a key growth area in the UAE over the next few years, as all seven emirates that make up the country begin to effectively apply robotics and AI.

As a result of increasing tourism to the region, there is an increased need for “automated protocols for the control and guidance” of tourists, he said, and other industries should also benefit from automation.

“For example, in the [near] future, there will be a great demand for robots that are used for glass and solar panel cleaning that will be more effective and less risky — coming under what are commonly called service robots,” Ehteshamuddin said.

Investment challenges
Although Ehteshamuddin was fairly confident about the growth prospects of the UAE robotics and AI sectors, he acknowledged that a number of key challenges remain. In particular, he said, start-ups may have difficulty raising funds in the region because private investors are “just starting to invest in technology start-ups, though it is far, far better than one or two years ago.”

“The government promotion of these sectors by organizing competitions like this can help to [foster] confidence among other investors,” he said.

For instance, Khalifa University has begun receiving project suggestions for the Mohamed bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge for unmanned aerial and ground vehicles (UAVs and UGVs). So far, 316 teams from 163 institutions in 45 countries have already expressed interest in the challenge, which is scheduled for 2017.

In addition, the second Robotic Technology Exhibition (RTEX) in Dubai will showcase open-source platforms, 3D printing, and consumer applications for robotics from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1.