KARACHI (Reuters) - In Pakistan’s commercial hub, a Pakistani is developing his own drone technology despite security challenges arising from the current political climate and the public anger over the U.S. use of the unmanned aircrafts.
Located in a narrow industrial lane in Karachi is the 90,000 square-foot research facility called Integrated Dynamics. There, Raja Sabri Khan, the company’s chief executive, makes unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones. But his are for civilian and scientific research.
But when he tells Pakistanis what he makes, the initial reaction he gets is one of shock. Pakistan is obsessed with just one kind of drone — the Predator — that is used by the United States to kill militants in the country’s northwest.
“The usual reaction I get when I tell people I make drones is: Are you the guy who is making the drones and supplying to the Americans so that they can come back and bomb them over here?” said Khan.
The U.S. drone campaign is hugely unpopular in Pakistan, surrounded by criticism and controversy, and considered flagrant violations of sovereignty.
The United States has made a series of attacks since 2004 in Pakistan’s northwest region as part of its struggle against militancy. According to the New America Foundation, which tracks drone strikes, between 1,561 and 2,461 people have been killed in 254 attacks, mainly in the country’s restive tribal regions.
Pakistani officials have criticized them, saying the strikes anger the public and play into the hands of the militants. But strikes that kill high-profile militants would not be possible without Pakistani intelligence, analysts say.
“One of the major areas is the misconception people might have about drones because the media has propped up the drone as something which is a completely different animal from what I do,” said Khan.
Khan’s markets are primarily the government, armed forces and also foreign exports for search and rescue operations, and agricultural monitoring among others.
There are two other Pakistani drone companies, Satuma and East West Infiniti, both based in Islamabad, but they mostly service military clients. Khan’s is the only one specializing in civilian applications.
Khan supplies 12 to 18 drones a year on average, along with two to three support systems. He declined to comment on his total revenue, but said a typical system for a small civilian UAV would cost around $10,000 to $15,000.
But he runs a risky business. A few years ago he had to go into hiding after receiving copies of circulated emails, which accused him of making Predator drones. His company is now spread out throughout Karachi so he cannot be targeted in one location.
Part of Khan’s business is trying to create more awareness about civilian drones despite the security challenges.
“With the civilian and scientific application, you can change lives,” he said.
But there is no government support for developing indigenous drone technology, he added.
He now works on using drones for insecticide spraying on crops, an operation that would cost less than using a conventional aircraft and could cover large areas quickly — something that would be useful for Pakistan’s agricultural-dominated economy.
Japan has been using remotely piloted helicopters for years for crop spraying.
A local non-profit organization has also asked his company for drones to help monitor the rehabilitation of devastating summer floods of 2010.
“There’s a real answer in this technology to a lot of things that Pakistan can be doing in a more cost-effective manner,” he said. “We need to understand that this technology is there to help, not to kill people.”
Editing by Chris Allbritton and Yoko Nishikawa