Abu Dhabi’s Edge focuses on smart defence strategies
Abu Dhabi’s new defence group will rapidly develop new systems to deal with threats by militant groups and armies as it bids to become an exporter of cutting-edge technology.
Edge chief executive Faisal Al Bannai said AI-powered defence systems are among the new areas the conglomerate of 25 state-owned companies is exploring.
Smarter weapons are needed to tackle militant groups that use crude home-made weapons such as drones and hide among civilians, he said.
Two drone attacks on Aramco production facilities in Saudi Arabia in September temporarily took more than half of the world’s largest crude exporter’s production offline.
“The drones that were built [to attack Aramco assets] were made with off-the-shelf components,” Mr Al Bannai told The National.
“There are many examples available of commercial technology that can be stitched together very fast and can cause a lot of damage.
“The future battlefield is yes, large-scale wars of full armies on full armies. But as you see in this region around us, you also see a lot of organised armies with militia ties.
“They’re still backed by state actors but they are militia style, they hide in cities, they hide behind civilians … you need different technologies and intelligence to deal with it.” Mr Al Bannai spoke to The National at the Dubai Airshow two weeks after Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, unveiled one of the Middle East’s biggest defence groups.
Edge is comprised of companies employing about 12,000 people and manufactures everything from small arms to home-grown military vehicles such as the NIMR.
“The goal is to achieve national sovereignty on very specific, critical defence capabilities. That’s the right of every country,” said Mr Al Bannai, who founded the Abu Dhabi cybersecurity contractor DarkMatter and Axiom telecoms in the 1990s.
With persistent geopolitical tension, demand for military equipment is increasing defence spending. Global military spending rose to $1.8 trillion (Dh6.61tn), the highest expenditure since such data was first reliably recorded, in 1988, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“The UAE spends a lot of money to defend itself. That money will be rerouted to build technologies to defend itself,” and to sell to allies, Mr Al Bannai
said, as the country proceeds with its strategy to build a knowledge-based economy amid the push to diversify away from oil.
The mandate for Edge is to develop advanced technology faster than large legacy defence firms, Mr Al Bannai said.
“What we learnt [at DarkMatter] is there’s always a way to develop at speed and in a reasonable, cost-effective manner,” he said.
Defence is “an industry which is really known to take an extremely long time and cost a tonne of money to do things”.
He said Edge is investing heavily in autonomous capabilities “whether for drones, cars, ships, or drones for package delivery. Autonomous is autonomous”.
Mr Al Bannai named quantum computing as one of the biggest emerging opportunities and “an area we will be aggressively investing in”.
He cautioned, however, that quantum computing is still a new and relatively unproven field. The company is also investing in technology for electronic warfare, including hardware-software equipment such as sensors, cameras and radar.
“It’s no longer 100 tanks and you know where you’re shooting,” Mr Al Bannai said. “You need much more pinpointed accuracy” which in turn will reduce the number of casualties in wartime.
Edge is on the lookout for tie-ups with companies from defence giants such as Lockheed Martin – with which it has a joint venture to maintain Black Hawk helicopters in Al Ain, among other projects – to acquiring small and mediumsized technology companies.
Bringing together SMEs with engineers “who are acquainted with mission critical systems” can speed up commercial applications.
He credits the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Programme and the nuclear power plant at Barakah for enticing a new crop of UAE students to study space and nuclear physics, among other in-demand jobs domestically, and sees Edge playing a similar role.
“Normally we are not a nation that migrates. The industries here are what we will study,” he said.
Edge is a critical component to linking academia, like the new Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence, to jobs in advanced technology and in attracting international talent to the UAE.
“What these capabilities are today are different from what they were 10 years ago and they will be different tomorrow.”
The Edge stand at the Dubai Airshow at Maktoum Airport. Edge is exploring AI-powered defence systems