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Drones come to Dubai Airshow…but what about the orders?

Two years ago, the Dubai Airshow saw a record number of aircraft orders, with deals breaching $200 billion as key Gulf carriers Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways announced huge orders with both Boeing and Airbus.

This year, the biennial show is set to top 2013's offering in terms of size, with over 1,110 exhibitors and some 65,000 trade visitors, but as far as the order book is concerned, expectations are low.

Visitors of Dubai's Airshow walk past an Emirati Canadian-made A6-MBS aircraft sitting on the tarmac in front of a Boeing 777-200LR (back)
Karim Sahib I AFP I Getty Images
Visitors of Dubai's Airshow walk past an Emirati Canadian-made A6-MBS aircraft sitting on the tarmac in front of a Boeing 777-200LR (back)

Thin order book?

"Putting it in context, the Dubai Airshow has become a big one in the global hierarchy. But I am not expecting anything big (in terms of orders)," said John Strickland, director of air transport consulting firm JLS.

"It was two years ago at Dubai, that Boeing successfully launched, with big orders, its 777X … (this) is the next generation of the Boeing 777 which is, in worldwide service, currently the most successful airliner both for Boeing and the airlines that have bought it. So given we had that big order then, I am not expecting to see something similar now," he told CNBC.

Emirates indicated last month that it won't be announcing any major orders at the show, as the group is still taking delivery of planes that were ordered back in 2013. This includes the long range jetliner 777X, which the carrier expects will start receiving orders from late 2018.

Chief executive of the group, Tim Clark, hinted that the airline will not make a decision on a twin-aisled jet, with the main competitors being Boeing's 787-10 Dreamliner and Airbus A350-900. Meaning, it could be a relatively quiet show for the flagship Dubai airline.

"We don't expect the mega orders seen in 2013. The big commercial aircraft decision in the region is Emirates' A350/787 order, but they flagged that wouldn't be until 2016 likely," said senior analyst at CAPA center for aviation, Will Horton.

Etihad and Qatar Airways, which also had a bumper 2013, have been fairly quiet in the run up to this year's show and Qatar already announced an order for 14 Boeing 777s in June.

"Qatar has some big orders in place and delivery plans already coming through, so it is difficult to see whether they would do anything really big," said Strickland.

While the major carriers are not expected to splash any cash, analysts are expecting some of the regions smaller carriers such as Air Arabia and FlyDubai to be fairly active on the order front.

Drone flight

While orders might not come close to those seen in 2013, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) – otherwise known as drones - will feature at the show for the first time. In a sign of the growth of this part of the market, they will also take part in the flying display this year.

Event organisers said the boom in the UAV market, both commercially and militarily, is having an "increasingly important impact" on the aerospace industry and drones will have a designated segment at the event.

Space travel

Another first for the show will be the presence of the newly formed United Arab Emirates (UAE) Space Agency. The agency was created in 2014 and has invested over $5.4 billion in space technologies already, according to the Dubai Airshow.

Last month, the group joined the International Space Exploration Coordination Group, which consists of 14 space agencies including Nasa and the European Space Agency.

"Our mission as an agency is to shape and guide the space sector in the UAE, with a vision be among the top countries in the field of space and aerospace by 2021," chairman of the UAE Space Agency, H.E. Khalifa Mohamed Al Romaithi, said in a statement.

"The Dubai Airshow is the center of the aerospace industry and an ideal place for us to work toward this mission, in the presence of the leading players in the industry," he added.

3-D printing

3-D printing will also be under the spotlight, with the new technology increasingly playing a key role for aerospace manufacturers, with the likes of Airbus, Boeing and Rolls Royce interested in the sector.

A dedicated pavilion will be given to 3-D printing at the show, with the likes of U.S. printing company Stratasys and Dutch firm Ultimaker demonstrating their technologies.