Saudi startup puts drone's limitless abilities in our hands

Tariq Nasraldeen founder and CEO

Originally published in Arab News, July 21, 2020

The use of drones has rapidly changed over the past years, offering limitless innovative opportunities for game-changing businesses through its dynamic technology.

Adoption of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology in Saudi Arabia is still in its infancy as regulations are constantly changing. Young Saudi entrepreneurs are keen to push drone market growth in the country with drone-based innovative solutions aimed at facilitating and revolutionizing how we get things done.

Firnas Aero is a pioneering Saudi startup company. They want to bring their Drone as a Service (DaaS) concept to the regional market, where they've develop new applications for inspection purposes, to solve problems in a faster and more efficient way than traditional methods.

Inspired by the father of aviation, Abbas ibn Firnas, the company was founded in 2018 by Tariq Nasraldeen and his friend Sariah Al-Jefri to provide inspection services that target the aviation, security, industrial, and delivery sectors.

"When we first started, the idea of the drone as a service was getting a drone off the shelf and doing some kind of footage for clients and hoping the images or videos were beneficial for them. If you want to go further you need to differentiate yourself. Therefore we decided to specialize in inspections," Firnas Aero founder and CEO Tariq Nasraldeen told Arab News.

Nasraldeen explained that unlike manual inspection, Firnas Aero offer more flexible, sustainable, accurate, and continually evolving solutions, as the company has developed their own drones and AI-equipped software, which they customize to serve each client's needs.

Nasraldeen's experience in aviation and airports management initially inspired the idea behind the startup. He noticed the inefficiency in performing periodic maintenance and scanning of runways and taxiways for foreign objects, which can threaten airplane safety. These missions are carried out manually by inspection workers consuming a long time and risking human error.

"Right now we are competing mainly with manual inspection, by that I mean two guys with a truck going up a crane and looking at something and deciding whether it needs to be fixed or not," Nasraldeen said, "by the time you do manual inspection for one spot for instance, we can do 50 with a drone."

The drone can take thousands of high-resolution pictures of one location in a short time and send them to be analyzed by the AI-equipped software, which will identify the exact location of the problem for the inspection workers. As a result, it allows clients to overcome manual work limitations in speed, accuracy, and human error potential, which is capable of leading to disastrous outcomes.

Nasraldeen noted that the highly repetitive nature of the inspection tasks would train the AI algorithms. Hence the drone and the software improve its abilities at doing that specific task each time.

"We are in the 90 percent accuracy range. Whereas most of the manual inspection is in the 50 or 60 percent," Nasraldeen added.

The company's journey started at TAQADAM Startup Accelerator at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in 2019; the six-month long program supports startups with training and mentorship. Firnas Aero were the first winners of that year and received startup funding. Since then, the young company had been actively expanding its reach and its service variety.

"We were lucky to be part of the KAUST ecosystem," Firnas Aero's Co-Founder and Director of Strategy Sariah Aljefri told Arab News, "We did not stop with the TAQADAM program, we decided to continue the journey and benefit from the support that we had."

After TAQADAM, Firnas Aero was incorporated at KAUST Research and Technology Park (KRTP), which provides an environment for technology-based businesses to access the University's laboratories, faculty and student talent and network of public spaces and facilities designed for creative collision and knowledge-sharing.

The ambitious company with their team of three had been involved in various projects; most recently was a collaboration with the Health ministry to help identify COVID-19 suspected cases in crowds using drones with infrared cameras.

"We used our drone to predict people with high body temperature at the central market in Madinah city. We reported that information to the Ministry of Health team, which was working alongside us, and then they would go and double-check with the individual," said Nasraldeen, "this was one of the most interesting projects that we've worked on."

Sariah Al-Jefri and Tariq Nasraldeen upon winning first place in the idea track at MITEF in February 2020

Currently, Firnas Aero is in discussion with KAUST to implement their drone-in-a-box service, which offers perimeter surveillance drones.

Nasraldeen explained, "It is the next step of having a fully autonomous system. So that box will house the drone and all its vital systems. Whether it's cooling data transmission, the charging pad, etc, it will be located in a specific area, and once you have an emergency or a routine controlling mission, the drone is already programmed to fly that out, and you would cover that specific area from your station."

This technology does not require a pilot to manually control the drone in the same spot; it is an efficient solution to control and monitor projects and huge complexes with the least effort and quickest way possible.

"The drone can live in the box in remote areas securely for a few months or a few weeks, depending on the project," said Nasraldeen.

Potential beneficiaries of such services are airports, industrial complexes, and various governmental institutions. "It increases the coverage or the quality, which will have an indirect effect on the level of services that the government offers to citizens and residents," said Al-Jefri.

Over the long run, Firnas Aero believes that they can reduce all kinds of operations using patrolling Jeeps, gradually until they reach zero.

"In a sense, these types of jobs are no longer needed, you can monitor autonomously without the support of actual people driving vehicles," said Al-jefri.

Al-Jefri said this technology, on the other hand, generates other kinds of jobs, mainly technological or in the backend, where workers will have to analyze images, make decisions, and dispatch teams.

Accordingly, drone technology is not only speed and cost-cutting, it also ideally helps to lower the environmental impact of inspection and delivery missions using vehicles.

Firnas Aero aspire to conquer the delivery sector too. "The second phase for us is we want to go into light cargo, or what they call in the industry, last-mile delivery, which is the most expensive part of the logistic supply chain," said Nasraldeen.

"In a five to ten years time frame, we're looking to move into bigger cargo and hopefully moving people using drones," he added.

Nasraldeen believes in the 2020s, and beyond, the world will witness huge shifts in technology. He thinks that there is a crucial need to re-evaluate how we do business and provide services in today's on-demand economy, where consumers expect immediate solutions.

"Artificial Intelligence was a very futuristic word five years ago. But now the filter in Snapchat uses AI, so it's not that far-fetched," Nasraldeen said. "It's not that science fiction terminology anymore. It's real. It's day-to-day stuff."

Regardless of challenges with cash flow, regulations, and permissions that can slow down progress, Firnas Aero aspires to cover the Saudi market and expand to GCC countries within two years and the MENA region within three to five years. After establishing a good track record, the company wants to reach out to Europe, the United States, Australia and South East Asia.

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