BEIRUT — Electronic warfare specialist SIGN4L is preparing to mark two milestones this year with the expected launch of its first integrated counter-drone system between the Emirati firm with Israel Aerospace Industries, and the completion of its first operational prototype of a high-energy laser with European consortium MBDA and French firm CILAS.

These steps by the subsidiary of defense conglomerate Edge could help the United Arab Emirates develop indigenous capabilities to design, create and operate locally made technology for countering unmanned aerial systems.

“UAE’s cooperation with European companies and Israel will increase its know-how in the field and might be used as a learning experience for developing its own system in the future,” according to Jean-Marc Rickli, head of global and emerging risks at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy think tank. “The laser technologies require advanced technologies; the other is more mainstream. There are many companies addressing some counter-drone techniques, and so the UAE will be an addition to this.”

Equipping commercial off-the-shelf drones with weapons has become a cheap and effective way to target forces and infrastructure, particularly in the Middle East.

High-energy laser

The first phase of the high-energy laser system involving SIGN4L, missile-maker MBDA and Ariane Group subsidiary CILAS will see the creation of a modular, land-based platform.

“The memorandum of understanding signed enables SIGN4L to tailor an end-to-end C-UAV solution against hostile unmanned aerial vehicles. The end product is a modular system that will comprise electronic sensors for detection and identification, and high-energy lasers to neutralize micro- and mini-UAV threats,” Waleid Al Mesmari, Edge’s vice president of program management for its electronic warfare and intelligence business, told Defense News.

The companies agreed to look into potential cooperation during the International Defence Exhibition and Conference, held Feb. 21-25 in the UAE, but few details were revealed then. Al Mesmari said the cooperation allows the UAE to benefit from international expertise.

“We are witnessing a technology breakthrough here and are excited to join forces with our partners in bringing this solution to market. SIGN4L is a significant contributor to key aspects of the modular solution, and in collaboration with its partners is involved in managing and developing subsystems,” he said.

The multistage program kicks off with the development of a land-based system, followed by integration on air and sea platforms. “The first phase of the program will be a highly effective, land-based system that combines sensor data from various sources with the latest data fusion, signal analysis, jamming technologies and directed-energy weapons. At a later stage, the solution will be tailored to fit on a variety of platforms, including in the air and at sea,” Al Mesmari explained.

Regarding the system’s range, he said the aim is to “identify the drones, assess the threat potential and, where necessary, neutralize threats.”

“We are planning to have in place a running prototype this year that can be used for extensive testing and characterization. Following that, the system will be manufactured in accordance with customer requirements. The development work will be distributed between the UAE and France, and we are looking forward to gaining new skill sets and international experience from our global partners,” Al Mesmari said.

Working with IAI

Meanwhile, SIGN4L and Israel Aerospace Industries plan to develop counter-drone systems, marking the first defense collaboration of its kind between the two countries.

“This collaboration follows an extensive and detailed road map. Key components of the system have been tested, and the next phase on C-UAV is to confirm the final configurations and building blocks,” Al Mesmari told Defense News.

SIGN4L expects to complete work on the integrated solution this year, which should employ a variety of detection and interception techniques. The detection and tracking elements will rely on radar, radio frequency monitoring, electro-optical cameras and infrared sensors. Both soft- and hard-kill capabilities are also expected.

“Soft-kill methods of interdiction include radio-link jamming, GPS jamming, spoofing and cyber takeover. Hard-kill capabilities — such as high-energy lasers, electromagnetic pulses, missiles and guns — will also be available based on the level of threat as well as the customer’s targeted operating environment,” Al Mesmari said.

The agreement for bilateral work on the system was also signed during IDEX in February. It called for a fully autonomous counter-UAV system that requires no human intervention and is supported by 3D radar, communications intelligence technology and electro-optics integrated into a unified command-and-control system.

Al Mesmari said the systems under development are being tested across multiple threat landscapes and are performing well.

“To manage any type of drone and respond to urgent and emerging threats, the system must detect, identify and defeat the threat where necessary. First, our radars, cameras and sensors would detect the threat and communicate that data through the system. It would then monitor the progress of the targets and identify whether they are friendly or unfriendly. To defeat the threats deemed unfriendly, the laser weapon system could be activated, or the cyber takeover system could be used to neutralize the threat,” he said.

“The region has specific needs when it comes to its environment; therefore, the system will perform better in hot, humid and dusty weather. With that being said, we are looking to offer a comprehensive and robust solution for the global market that caters to a wide range of capabilities and diverse threats.”

Rickli, with the Geneva-based think tank, noted there are a few techniques used to defend airspace from drone threats.

“When it comes to counter-drone solutions, we can identify three types of techniques: destruction, neutralization and taking control of the drones. The laser falls into destruction; the Israeli solution falls into the neutralization, destruction and possibly taking-control categories,” he told Defense News.

But due to the various sizes and threats posed by drones, there is no solution that can offer all three techniques, he added.

“Think about the differences in the drones that blocked Gatwick airport in 2018 — commercial drones — [and] those used against Saudi Aramco [oil facility] in 2019, and those used for targeted killing by the USA. They are very different, flying at different altitudes with different performance, and therefore makes a comprehensive defensive very difficult.”

Agnes Helou was a Middle East correspondent for Defense News. Her interests include missile defense, cybersecurity, the interoperability of weapons systems and strategic issues in the Middle East and Gulf region.

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