Technology Innovation Institute, Khalifa University, Global Partners Achieve Breakthrough in RISC-V-based UAV Systems

  • Historic milestone marks crucial turning point in UAE’s journey to realizing potential of home-grown RISC-V based UAV systems
  • Global partners on pilot System-on-Chip ‘Shaheen’ research program include University of Bologna, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, New York University Abu Dhabi, Cadence Design Systems, Siemens EDA, and Global Foundries
  • ‘Shaheen’, the first-of-its-kind program to be conceptualized and designed in the UAE by TII’s SSRC, Khalifa University’s SoCL and partners


Abu Dhabi-UAE: 8 August 2022 – In collaboration with multiple university and industry partners, the Technology Innovation Institute (TII), a leading global scientific research center and the applied research pillar of Abu Dhabi’s Advanced Technology Research Council (ATRC), today announced that its Secure Systems Research Center (SSRC) has marked a watershed in progressing the country’s first Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC-V) based System-on-Chip (SoC) research.

Through multiple local and global partnerships including those with the System-on-Chip Lab (SoCL) at Khalifa University of Science and Technology (KU), University of Bologna, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, New York University Abu Dhabi, Cadence Design Systems, Siemens EDA, and Global Foundries, SSRC successfully developed ‘Shaheen’, the first-of-its-kind program to be conceptualized and designed in the UAE. The test chip serves as a drone flight controller for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), utilizing the Center’s very own secure PX4 drone autopilot stack.

‘Shaheen’ is the first-ever complex SoC that serves as a pilot version of the Al Saqr SoC that is slated for release in 2023. ‘Shaheen’ incorporates several new capabilities including a hypervisor extension added to a 64-bit RISC-V processor core that can run multiple guest operating systems (OS) in parallel, as well as Zero Trust security techniques to avoid supply chain vulnerabilities, and integrated Parallel Ultra-Low-Power (PULP) ML accelerator engine with floating point extensions to eliminate model quantization. In addition, it features a physical unclonable function (PUF) chip which uses a specific fingerprint for secure provisioning and authentication. ‘Shaheen’ supports various peripherals such as SPI, I2C, UART, JTAG, CAN, ETH (RMII), SDIO, GPIOs, PWM, CPI, and C2C.

The launch of ‘Shaheen’ is significant for two reasons – first, it provides the UAE with the fundamental know-how to build its own silicon for national and global use, while enabling the potential proliferation of high-skilled jobs in the country. This is a step in the right direction for the UAE as it eyes leadership within the Zero Trust end-to-end security and resilience domains in both cyber physical and autonomous systems.

Second, ‘Shaheen’ allows both commercial and government entities in the UAE to maintain significant manufacturing autonomy without relying heavily on high-performance functionalities from other countries as has always been the case in the past. The program’s role as a test vehicle and precursor to Al Saqr marks a crucial first step in gaining valuable insights about SoC’s capabilities, security, performance, reliability, and resilience - notably in enhancing the security of UAVs applying Zero Trust principles.

Speaking on the new milestone, Dr. Ray O. Johnson, CEO of TII and ASPIRE, said: “RISC-V’s ISA is revolutionizing the world of computing systems, and TII is building this new capability into our growing portfolio of advanced tech solutions, as we continue to future-proof our world – one step at a time. The use cases for drones and similar autonomous systems now span multiple sectors from e-commerce to healthcare and communication to security. This achievement will further strengthen our credibility as a global research center at the forefront of cutting-edge technology that is working to shape an enabled and more secure world.”

Dr. Shreekant Thakkar, Chief Researcher, SSRC and Adjunct Research Professor, KU said: “The community is the leading open Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) community of processor architecture. A significant part of the work in realizing this project required implementing RISC-V hypervisor extensions to the CPU to run multiple, isolated OSes in parallel. SSRC is actively working with the community in shaping the future of SoC security, and subsequently putting TII on the world map as a leader in pioneering Zero Trust Drone System research.”

Dr. Steve Griffiths, Senior Vice President, Research and Development, Khalifa University, said: “Khalifa University’s SoCL, led by Dr. Baker Mohammed, is the only center of its kind in the UAE, and it was established specifically for engaging in leading-edge research and development of electronic circuits and systems, as well as related sensor technologies. The breakthrough that we have achieved with TII’s SSRC demonstrates the value of strong partnerships between academic and industry partners. Such alliances will help accelerate the UAE’s vision for establishing technologically advanced industries based on local research and innovation.”

The advent of RISC-V is creating enormous opportunities for countries like the UAE to design their own SoCs and independently govern the development of open-source hardware. ‘Shaheen’ demonstrates the importance of collaborative efforts between the scientific research and academic communities in driving open source, transformative technologies. The upcoming Al Saqr SoC research program will further enhance and reinforce the UAE’s leadership in pioneering new hardware and software capabilities.