Paradigm Shift: Meet Talib M. Alhinai, The Emirati Entrepreneur Reimagining Drone Tech
If you had to name two technological advancements that have radically opened up opportunities for businesses to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as well as have the potential to make a difference to the society at large, it'd be safe to say that drone technology and 3D printing would make the cut. Well, having assumed that, what would you then say about an invention that combines the core of both these technologies? While the cynic in you may cause to roll your eyes at the aforementioned description, you should know that such a product actually exists, and that it is also currently on the path toward commercialization as Buildrone, which refers to itself as "an aerial repair service." Buildrone is essentially a flying robot, armed with a 3D printer, which can spot leaks and fix pipelines from the air in hard to access or hazardous areas, with its application ranging across sectors like construction, oil and gas, utilities, to name a few.
But that's just the beginning: Buildrone aims to push forward the development of aerial robots capable of construction-scale 3D printing of entire structures. That is, imagine a future where a swarm of drones build your homes and offices, block by block, from the skies. While Buildrone's function by itself makes the enterprise especially relevant for the Arab world, the region may be further invested in this venture by learning that this breakthrough innovation that's reimagining the use of drone tech is the brainchild of Emirati inventor and entrepreneur, Talib M. Alhinai.
Subsequently, Alhinai set out to do his PhD in robotics at the Department of Aeronautics, at Imperial College London in 2013. "I particularly liked the vision that Dr. Mirko Kovac [his advisor] had for an Aerial Robotics Lab that he had just started at Imperial College London, where he was keen on the idea of building drones for humanitarian applications, particularly at a time when the word drone had a much more stronger connotation with war than it does today," Alhinai remembers. And with its ambitions to be an aerial robot capable of construction-scale 3D printing, Buildrone can well be perceived as a humanitarian project that's also an advancement from the current application of drones. "In order for drones to be used for construction tasks, they would be required to actively interact with the physical environment and effectively carry out pick-and-place tasks when needed, dictating that the drones need to be robust to turbulences and external disturbances, repetitively and accurately lay down construction material, and to incorporate levels of autonomy and intelligence that would minimize the need for human supervision," explains a clear and precise Alhinai.
He's also clearly excited about the near-term impact of the patent-pending Buildrone technology in the infrastructure industry- as that of a first-response repair service in scenarios like leaking gas pipelines, or to repaint large structures, or for corrosion treatment on offshore oil rigs, among others. "The long-term impact Buildrone can have in the status quo would be to enable drones to be flying minifactories, where they would fly to a construction site, work together to create buildings from scratch," notes Alhinai, elaborating on how the product could be perfect for inaccessible sites and those dangerous for human workers to get to, and thus alter the state of the construction industry in this part of the world.
Buildrone's connection with the UAE extends beyond its utilities or the nationality of its creator. In February 2016, Alhinai and his team bagged the national category award, winning the AED1 million prize at the UAE Drones for Good challenge in Dubai, a forum popular in drone circles as the "world cup for drones." Emerging as winners out of over 1,000 submissions, Alhinai's Imperial College team won the award for reimagining the inspection and repair tasks associated with construction and oil and gas sector, while simultaneously achieving time and cost savings with their drone. "It was a fantastic experience from the making of an entry video at the very beginning, all the way to being announced as winners and meeting His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, and being personally presented with the award," Alhinai says. "It was an honor to meet him, to have had the opportunity to personally showcase Buildrone, and share our vision with him."
The award, he admits, opened a lot of doors for his company- from introduction to new partners to carrying out pilots with, to being recognized on the global tech stage as a formidable creation. And of course, though Buildrone continues to scale while still being a bootstrapped enterprise, Alhinai says the prize winnings from the 2016 UAE Drones for Good Award have significantly helped them to keep going without having to rely on external investors. Post the victory in the challenge, Alhinai's connection with the local ecosystem also deepened. He worked with the Dubai Future Foundation -a body set up to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of Dubai-to help establish community innovation centers to encourage the adoption of robotics solutions and technologies. "The involvement then transitioned into joining a two-year project in August 2016 with The Executive Office of H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, to accelerate the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Dubai which I am still a part of," he adds. Alhinai is also playing a part in nurturing UAE's future change makers as an Ambassador for Shorik, an initiative launched by H.E. Dr. Ahmed Belhoul Al Falasi, UAE Minister of State for Higher Education, that intends to connect high school students interested in studying abroad with students currently studying at global universities.
And very soon, just like the Emirati entrepreneur himself, his startup Buildrone too will be an integral part of the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. The company, which is currently based in the UK, is also being relocated to the UAE, says Alhinai. "We're currently on the path of commercialization to deliver the product to potential customers in the form of an aerial repair service. This service is proposed to be a drone that would be deployed to a remote site (e.g. an oil refinery or steel plant) to inspect and identify potential weaknesses in structure and preemptively carry out repairs on them before a fault even takes place," he adds. While two pilot projects with established industrial partners ("the first with a large steel manufacturer in Spain concerning pipeline leak repairs and a second with a renewable energy firm in the UAE concerning cleaning solar panels") are currently underway, the Buildrone team is also working on their main goal of 3D printing buildings with drones. "[We aim] to develop swarms of aerial robots that could be deployed at hard-to-reach construction sites following natural catastrophes such as tsunamis and earthquakes and autonomously "print' buildings to serve as temporary housing solutions and disaster shelters," he says.
Alhinai is currently in the process of transitioning from London, and he is clear that he'll be based in Abu Dhabi "for the foreseeable future." This decision is also guided by his optimism about the UAE's efforts to position itself as a global hub for innovation, and desire to be a contributor to this ambition of his nation. "The results of the UAE's leadership's efforts to create a knowledge economy for the world after oil can already be seen with a spike in children and youth interest to take part in STEM from an early age, and with Dubai's burgeoning reputation as the world's test ground for attracting disruptive technology," he says. He believes that the way things are progressing and the entrepreneurial success stories that surround us are clearly testimonies to the role of government-sponsored initiatives, and "the trickle-down down effect [they have] on the rest of society."
Thus, once he's back in the UAE, the entrepreneur's short-term priorities include publishing the recent results of his just-concluded research part of his PhD, and to focus on continuing to refine the Buildrone prototype to carry out aerial repairs. As for what keeps him stay steadfastly motivated and devoted to his not-so-easy venture, Alhinai says looking back at the long way Buildrone has come keeps him going. "It's energizing to be recognized for an idea that was once just a pet project, and to have seen it blossom into a business today. It's motivation for us to work even harder, given that we're still a long way away from achieving our vision." But if the achievements Alhinai and Buildrone have realized so far are any indication, then it's safe to say that this Emirati entrepreneur has an impressive future ahead of him- and we at Entrepreneur Middle East are certainly looking forward to it.
Talib M. Alhinai, founder, Buildrone
Q: What is your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs in the MENA region?
A: "My top three tips for MENA's entrepreneurs would be first to focus on cultivating their grit- starting a venture is hard, but as long there is passion and a perseverance at the core of their work ethic, then there is always a way forward. Second is to get out of your comfort zone- if you want to build the business of your dreams you'll have to be willing to give up your full-time job and putting those hours instead into your business. The third tip would be to seek out other entrepreneurs who are "ahead' of you (e.g. those who have already completed their Series A) for advice, and as well as others who are in the same level as you, to keep each other motivated."
Q: How do you balance research and product development with the business management, as an entrepreneur?
"Juggling a PhD at the same time as starting and then managing business was an interesting learning experience due to the large gulf in between the two, but the research skills I gained during the PhD were largely transferable which made the shift into the product development aspect of Buildrone much easier. In terms of managing the business, those skills had to be acquired on the go as and when needed as we are a team of four and all of us are fully focused on research and product development, but when the time came to focus on the business, I was fortunate enough that the team rallied around me and supported me into making that transition while still keeping research development and experimentation as a primary focus."