Startup Spotlight: UAE-Based AS2 Systems Offers Cutting-Edge Technologies That Can Help Secure Maritime Autonomy
Launched in September 2020, AS2 Systems is a tech startup that uses its proprietary technologies to develop a secure "command and control" system that offers autonomous control of any vessel, irrespective of its size or complexity.
This article is part of an ongoing series covering startups that have been a part of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Innovation Fund (MBRIF) accelerator program.
"Ask yourself this: if your system is hacked or a malicious code is added, what happens to the rest of your fleet?" That is the question Lee Drinkwater, co-founder and CEO of UAE-based technology startup AS2 Systems, poses to business leaders and managers working in the maritime industry- a sector that has faced growing cybersecurity issues over the past few years.
As per a June 2020 report by cybersecurity consultancy Naval Dome, cyberattacks on the maritime industry's operational technology systems have increased by 900% between 2018 and 2020. And the industry faced a further blow amid the onset of the coronavirus pandemic- According to the same study by Naval Dome, maritime cyberattacks increased by 400% in 2020 alone. With an array of seaports across the country that sees ships and other vessels being used for both commercial as well as leisurely activities, the UAE's maritime industry is not immune to such risks.
And it is to solve such issues that AS2 Systems, which is headquartered at the Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM), was created. Launched in September 2020, AS2 Systems is a tech startup that uses its proprietary technologies to develop a secure "command and control" system that offers autonomous control of any vessel, irrespective of its size or complexity. AS2 Systems' unmanned autonomous platform can be used for multiple purposes across the maritime industry, ranging from defense and security to commercial as well as civil activities.
Drinkwater had first crossed paths with his co-founders -Lindsay G., Robert Rattray, and Robert Rattray Jr.- while working on autonomous vessels that were specifically designed for an Abu Dhabi-based client who was involved in the UAE's defense industry. That experience allowed the four co-founders to look deeply into the issues that rendered existing autonomous systems ineffective against current cyber threats."One of the fundamental issues was the heavy use of third-party 'off-the-shelf' hardware, and widely available and often times open source software, which requires hosting on a base operating system (OS) that will inevitably employ intermediate third-party interpreter packages," explains Drinkwater. "These OS and their various subcomponents can be exploited, and that raises enormous concern for system security and mission readiness- not only from malicious agents-of-chaos and zero-day hacking [a cyber-attack that exploits a software security weakness that is unknown to the vendor/developer using it], but also faulty processes and inter-system compatibility issues that are outside either the user's or suppliers' direct control. This presents a major problem that the entire industry must deal with."
Drinkwater explains that it is the mere presence of an OS that enables malicious software to disrupt a given vessel's computer systems, and since AS2 Systems does not use a base OS, its clients (are thus guaranteed complete protection from hacking attempts and computer viruses. "Fully in-house developed hardware and software is also tailored specifically for the customers' unique requirements and achieved using bare-machine [logical hardware that executes programs without an OS], a security operations center, and reduced instruction set computing," Drinkwater adds. "One of our other unique selling points is that we also don't require any intellectual property sharing to integrate third party sensors or systems, which affords enormous savings- in both time and legal costs."
Image courtesy AS2 Systems.
With a solution that is already at Technology Readiness Level 9 (a measurement system used to assess the maturity level of a given technology with Level 9 being the most mature), AS2 Systems works with vessel builders and operators that currently don't have an autonomous offering. But Drinkwater says his startup's definition of autonomy goes beyond the topical definition of the term. "It's not simply just about self-driving boats and ships," he says. "Current legislation requires a 'human in the loop.' Increasing levels of autonomy can be added to conventional vessels to enable a reduced crew and thereby minimize human endangerment in high risk or dangerous activities, or even just for time-consuming, mundane work that can be augmented with semi-autonomous vessel behavior."
Drinkwater adds that AS2 Systems is also working towards achieving another related goal: sustainability. "When you reduce the size of the vessel, reduced carbon emissions naturally follow," he says. "Combine autonomy with electrification and that footprint reduces to extremely low levels- which can only be good for our environment." With an approach that seeks to address issues beyond just cybersecurity threats, AS2 Systems has gained the trust of its clients. "So far, there's a great amount of interest from related defense entities, but the tech is relevant across the maritime sector with respect to survey vessels, tugs, search and rescue, to name a few," adds Drinkwater. "As legislation progresses, we hope to be able to play our part in securing autonomous functions and ensuring ships' navigational controls aren't hacked- an unwelcome but increasingly common trend."
And AS2 Systems' participation in the MBRIF program is certainly helping the enterprise move ahead on its goals. "We chose the MBRIF program because it's one of -if not the most prestigious- in the region, and is backed by the UAE Ministry of Finance," Drinkwater says. "It's a little early on in the program to see any monetary returns, but the guidance and expertise we continue to receive as we progress through our journey is invaluable. As founders, it can be a lonely journey and you doubt yourself often. But having skilled, experienced ears to rely on as a sounding board is incredibly comforting."
Drinkwater also is grateful for the MBRIF's aid in getting his enterprise connected with the right local entities. "Most of our business is international at the moment, so we'd like to engage more with the UAE government, shipbuilders and organizations such as Abu Dhabi Ports, DP world, RTA, and ADNOC, but it still remains difficult to do so," he adds. "The MBRIF has been enormously helpful with introductions and opening doors for us, and so, we're encouraged that we're making headway at home!" In terms of funds, AS2 Systems has been a bootstrapped venture thus far, but it is now seeking to raise a seed round. But it is precisely in the matter of funding that the startup has faced one of its greatest hurdles. "Grants and government funding for next-gen maritime tech are nonexistent in the region," laments Drinkwater. "There's ground-breaking innovation happening right here; however, there's a reliance on foreign 'sure-things.' If innovation isn't nurtured here, it will sadly leave for somewhere that does."
But there is some respite for AS2 Systems on this end, with the company having created enough buzz to capture the interest of H.H. Sheikh Mansour Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Chairman of Doha-based MBK Holding and a member of Qatar's ruling family. "The Sheikh is actually a software coder and a tech enthusiast, so he immediately understood the value of what we're bringing to market, as well as its importance," says Drinkwater. "His Highness' investment into AS2 is enormously important to us, as it affords us the runway and capex to realize our pipeline, and bring on new staff to execute it. The Sheikh's team is also working with us as partners, mentors, and active members of the team. Over the next 24 months, we plan to open offices in Europe, Australia, and the US, in the major maritime hubs. It's truly exciting times for us!"