By Ivan Gale
A company that has adapted snowmobiles to travel over sand has just passed a summer trial with the UAE Armed Forces and is marketing its vehicle as a potential game-changer in regional border protection.
The tracked, all-terrain vehicle produced by the Swiss company Sand-X Motors is similar to a snowmobile but has two front wheels instead of skis. To withstand brutal summer temperatures and the abrasion associated with sand, it uses 300 unique parts including strong Kevlar tracks.
Urs Eiselin, the owner and founder of Sand-X Motors, says he has sold about 300 units since 2007, primarily to wealthy recreational users looking for more speed, range and versatility than is available from a four-by-four or a quad bike. The company has sold its civilian vehicle in 16 countries, including all six GCC states, Mr Eiselin says.
The base model of the Sand-X costs US$25,000 (Dh91,750), but the price has been known to go as high as $75,000 because of custom requests including special colour schemes, inlaid precious metals and adaptations for falconry trips such as coolers, TVs and even a remote control.
The novelty of the Sand-X has even landed it a spot in a Hollywood action film coming next year from Rob Cohen, whose directing credits include The Fast and the Furious.
In May, the company launched military sales with a single, unspecified military contract in the GCC.
"This could revolutionise border protection," Mr Eiselin said. "Currently, 90 percent of the GCC borders are desert, and there is no vehicle that exists today that can patrol in these conditions the way Sand-X can."
The Sand-X, which has a 1,200cc, four-stroke engine, can reach top speeds of 185kph and has a range of 300km. The company's line-up of government vehicles includes versions for search-and-rescue and reconnaissance.
Meanwhile, a military version includes racks for weapons such as machine guns and grenade launchers as well as specialised helmets fitted with night vision and communications equipment. A militarised Sand-X can cost between $30,000 and $40,000, Mr Eiselin said.
Sand-X was one of a number of vehicles that participated in gruelling tests conducted last month by the UAE Armed Forces in the desert near Liwa. The main element was participating in a convoy of vehicles driving 1,000km in heavy dunes.
Mr Eiselin was permitted to field one Sand-X unit and no repairs were allowed during the competition. His unit was locked and guarded overnight. The Sand-X passed while some other competitors got stuck or broke down, he said. "The convoy involved a lot of waiting around," he recalled.
The company's target market is the Middle East, North Africa and India, but it is participating in trials as far away as Peru and also has high hopes to do business with the U.S., which is stepping up patrols along its border with Mexico.
Dr. Theodore Karasik, a security analyst with the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said equipment such as the Sand-X could be used in conjunction with unmanned aerial vehicles to solidify vulnerable regional borders.
"Protecting and manning porous borders is necessary, and it is difficult to do, as shown by the continued penetration by smugglers," Dr Karasik said. "This type of device adds a whole new dimension."
Mr. Eiselin, who is Swiss, is a former professional alpine snowboarder and won a silver medal at the world championships in 2005.
He said he spent more than $700,000 developing prototypes of the Sand-X and made his first sale to the emir of Qatar.
To see a video of the Sand-X, go here: http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100830/BUSINESS/708309951