The News International - Pakistan

ID=51667&Cat=4&dt=6/10 /2011 Pakistan has drones that save lives! By Saman Ghani Khan Published on Fri, June 10, 2011 Karachi Ever since US drones drew first blood in Pakistan seven years ago, the country has been obsessed with this type of warfare and its repercussions. In the aftermath of the nation’s most devastating natural disaster, between September and December the US carried out 52 drone strikes that claimed dozens of innocent lives. But what if drones were used during that same period to save lives and for relief operations? Many Pakistanis are unaware that civilian drone technology has existed in Pakistan for over 20 years, which raises the important question as to why the state has not used it to save lives instead of being obsessed with acquiring US Predator drones that are designed to destroy them. According to aerospace design engineer Raja Sabri Khan, our leadership lacks the imagination to use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) for civilian purposes. The CEO of Integrated Dynamics (ID) and the man behind Pakistan’s first drone made here in Karachi, Khan talked to The News to discuss their versatility and potential to save lives. “We do not build drones as weapons. These unmanned aircrafts are used for peaceful purposes around the world, and many of our drones have been exported to Italy, Spain, Brazil, Australia as well as South Korea,” he said. ID’s drones have been used to map entire eco-systems in the great Amazon, for law enforcement in Italy, Outback rescue in Australia as well as monitoring schools of tuna in the Great Barrier Reef. Khan said that he had no knowledge of these aircraft operating in Pakistan. However, he did mention that in 1991 the National Geographic Channel used drones made in Pakistan to capture rare footage of the elusive and almost extinct Himalayan snow leopard. “Drones can be used to map coastal erosion developing at an accelerating rate in Sindh.”

Drones are basically an extension of remote-controlled model airplanes that provide a “quick and dirty” way of getting a job done, he said. In addition to long endurance which renders them functional for days on end, they also cost one-tenth of what a conventional aircraft would. According to him, patience and persistence is the key to pursuing any passion one might have. However, he did add that one had to be a little crazy to do what he does. Sabri’s passion has always been, and still is, to make an aircraft that can go longer as well as faster, and can be put to “constructive” use. “I am currently working towards a solar-powered drone which can travel at 80, 000 feet for months on end, potentially covering most of Pakistan’s land mass for the purpose of internal communications and distance learning patterns.” After acquiring a Masters degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Aeronautics and Astronautics, his interest in unmanned aircraft was solidified. It was not till four years later in 1988 that Khan’s team, which consisted of a painter, a motorcycle mechanic and a carpenter, built Pakistan’s first drone. “We used components from microwave ovens, photocopiers as well as car parts recovered from junk yards to build our first drone.” Sabri acquired the funds for this rudimentary garage project from a not-so-scientific hobby of his; photography. “During 1984 and 1988 I worked as a fashion photographer because it paid well.” Once the government took notice of Khan’s work, he was invited to be a part of Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco) to work on the country’s first drone programme. He resigned in 1997 and opted to teach at a private A’level institution as a physics teacher till the year 2000 to help fund his ambition to build smaller and smarter drones. The government took notice of Khan’s innovation again and provided the funds to help set up a small factory for the production of drones, but financing fell short in 2005. However, to the best of Sabri’s knowledge, the state has not used drone technology for civilian purposes to date. “We just deliver the systems as per our client’s requirements, and apart from military training none of these systems are used in Pakistan today,” Khan said. He also mentioned that he has never been approached by the government to build a weapons’ drone, and while he has often questioned why drone technology is not

used for civilian applications, he acknowledged that ID would not be able to export its drones today if it were not facilitated by the government. When asked whether Pakistan’s military actually possessed the capabilities to shoot down a US drone, Sabri said that it was highly improbable. “Due to their long endurance capabilities, a conventional aircraft will find it difficult to pursue it; especially if the drone is navigated out of Pakistani airspace to avoid capture and then sent back in when the coast is clear,” he explained. While commenting on the misconceptions surrounding drones in Pakistan, Sabri said that the media has played a significant role in molding public opinion to think that any technology that is unmanned is lethal. The media with the help of politicians have obsessed too much over the US predator which has led to the onedimensional understanding of these aircrafts, he said. On the subject of the media, he spoke of the use of drones to gather news. “Drones can be revolutionary for electronic news coverage,” he said. A simple UAV made from foam (for the safety of civilians) costing $4000-$5000 can be used to transmit live feeds of events that range from political processions and natural disasters to violent conflicts. According to him, had the military been using surveillance drones at their sensitive installations, the tragic loss of life at PNS Mehran could have been avoided. He added that this technology could have provided clear visuals on the exact locations of the terrorists. “Pakistanis have a tendency to wait around for the sky to fall down. We need to explore more innovative ways to solve the country’s problems,” he firmly believed.