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  • Sarah Sabatke

Million Dollar Award Encourages Drone Innovations for Good

Photo credit: Josh Sorenson via

The use of drones to fly over landscapes, collect aerial photography or survey a building is not difficult to comprehend. In fact, those uses are quite common. But what about flying a drone to locate people displaced in a natural disaster? Or taking it underwater for reconnaissance missions?

Each spring, the UAE Drones for Good Award recognizes innovations in drone technology like these that aim to help their communities. The award, sponsored by the government of the United Arab Emirates, “encourages useful and positive applications for drone technology,” according to the program website. The award and a $1 million prize are awarded to one international team and one team within the UAE (the latter receives a prize of Dhs1 million).

While the award is not limited to set categories, entries are often received in the areas of education, healthcare, tourism, environment, and disaster relief, among others. The award was launched in 2014 by the UAE Government Summit and Flyability took the inaugural international prize the following spring. Flyability, a company from Switzerland, created a drone for search and rescue purposes that was protected from collisions, called “Gimball”. Wadi Drones, a UAE-based team, won the inaugural national prize for a drone creation geared towards wildlife conservation.

Video credit: UAE Drones for Good

Video credit: NYU Abu Dhabi

The award website writes that the Drones For Good Award “is based on international reports that show that the value of drones market in the world will reach $16.1 billion in 2021,” citing expected growth, particularly in the areas of logistics and the environment. “Drones have also been shown to have huge potential in urban planning 3D imaging technology in addition to … disaster response and projects in various economic sectors …,” according to the initiative description.

Submission requirements for the competition include being able to demonstrate a working prototype that is either semi-autonomous or fully autonomous and illustrating “a genuine service or present[ing] a solution to a real human need.” Entries are also encouraged to be “safe, effective and economical.” Entries can come from individuals, teams, companies or universities.

Loon Copter, from the United States, took the international prize in the 2016 competition with a drone that was able to operate under water. Osmah Rawashdeh, the project leader for Loon Copter, told that the team’s creation was versatile, stating “It can fly, or operate on the surface of the water, and then can dive underwater like a remote control submarine,” according to a 2016 article. That year’s national winner, BuilDrone, addressed a similar problem, creating a drone to repair leaks in pipelines.

The award is given during a two-day event, where entrants are judged and provide live demonstrations of their prototypes. The recognition is “a tangible outcome of the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum to make optimal use of innovation and technology for the service of humanity,” stated the UAE Minister of Cabinet Affairs, His Excellency Mohammed Abdullah Al Gergawi, according to an article by DRONETHUSIAST.

Other past winners of the UAE Drones for Good Award include:

2016: BuilDrone (national category); Loon Copter (international category — USA)

2017: Smart Ring by Sanad Academy (national category); Nokia Saving Lives (international category)


I am a journalist and drone pilot based in Missouri. I currently teach future drone pilots at the University of Missouri, where I am also studying for my master’s degree in documentary journalism. I am fascinated by the possibilities of drone use in film and journalistic projects, and am excited for opportunities to incorporate the medium into my own work. Instagram: @sarahsabatke

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