Saudi Arabia vies to become global heavy-lift drone hub

Saudi heavy-lift drones

Saudi Arabia is seeking to establish itself as a global center of new drone technology by focusing on development of heavy-lift drone design, production, and operation. The push is being led by the country’s Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR), in partnership with the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Heavy-lift drones at center of wider Saudi tech development

Saudi officials believe the swiftly advancing capacities and deployment of heavy-lift drones represent a growth segment within the advanced air mobility (AAM) sector that’s ready to soar. The aim of staking out a spot in relatively early stage expansion, they say, is to not only serve international transport operators and clients, but also for use towards pressing internal Saudi infrastructure priorities. That, they believe, will position the kingdom to shape more refined regulatory frameworks that matured activities will require. 

Recent applications of heavy-lift drones convinced Saudi Arabia the vehicle provided an excellent place to establish a foothold in AAM development. The craft are already being used to transport up to 500 kg. payloads, often of industrial equipment or supplies to destinations with limited or degraded ground access. Ever larger deliveries of vaccines and other medical material have been flown by those uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAV) in Africa and certain US states. Saudi planners are convinced those activities will expand dramatically, even as new applications for heavy-lift drones are created around the globe. 

Promotion of the craft also dovetails with priorities within Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 project. That now envisions use of drones to assist with major infrastructure modernization, and enhancement of the nation’s existing transport systems previously planned. Also involved in that effort will be the Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation, Ministry of Transport, and Saudi Arabian Oil Company.

Urgent modernization through tech embrace

Saudi officials say they’ve identified at least 70 areas of application for drone technologies under the C4IR program. In addition to UAV, other tech brackets being pursued include artificial intelligence, internet of things, blockchain, and smart cities. Each project under the scheme will undergo an identification and selection stage; framework development involving other stakeholders; prototyping and testing; and scaling within a regulatory framework.

As with heavy-lift drones, that will at times will involve the C4IR jumping on critical technologies already under development and working to accelerate that progress – while benefitting from it at the same time. Elsewhere it will mean fleshing out newly emerged applications that can be assisted through infancy and testing, and on to more rapid deployment within an effective and favorable regulatory environment.

Embrace of heavy-lift drones as a transportation component of the wider tech push is one of the most recent ways the Saudi leadership has sought to evolve the country and economy. Despite its mighty oil reserves, the nation is facing a future in which a decreasing demand for plant-warming fossil fuels are expected to seriously undermine income. Meanwhile, new economic activities are urgently needed to provide jobs and services for a huge generation of younger Saudis who have become increasingly impatient with the country’s aged leaders – who have long been slow to react to, and often been quite wary of, too much change.

Photo: Baker Sha

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