Sep 27, 2013

Reliability of Using Munitions to Determine Culpability

If this is your first time here, I recommend starting from the conclusion page.

After determining that the only reliable evidence associating the regime with the chemical attack is the munition analysis by Brown Moses, I will now examine the reliability of using this evidence to determine culpability.

In most conflicts there are significant differences in the munitions used by each side. This may be a result of different budgets, different international allies, different defense needs etc. Therefore, munition remains found at impact sites are a reliable indication of the source of that attack.

This however does not apply well to the Syrian civil war, since a significant part of the opposition arsenal is obtained from raids on Army bases and ammunition depots. This is especially true in the case of heavy weaponry, which is harder to acquire and smuggle from abroad.

Numerous examples of such raids and the loot may be found online, but here are a few examples:

  1. November 2012 - Capture of Base 46, including artillery and rocket launchers.
  2. December 2012 - Capture of SA-8 missile
  3. January 2012 - Capture of airbase, including a rocket launcher, a shell with Cyrillic writing, a tank, an APC and a helicopter.
  4. August 2013 - Capture of an anti-tank ammunition depot
  5. August 2013 - Capture of airbase, including tanks and helicopters.
There are also endless videos documenting the use of captured heavy weaponry by opposition forces. I find this one showing a Liwa Al-Islam tank column especially nice. This report from Brown Moses shows a Syrian Army rocket launcher somewhat similar to the UMLACA (improvised rocket, oversized warhead, civilian truck) being used by Al-Nusra (Update: we now know this rocket and the UMLACA to be closely related, both named "Volcano").

Conclusion: Determining culpability by using munition analysis alone is irrelevant in the Syrian civil war.

Did I miss anything? Please share your evidence and analysis and help me improve my conclusions.

Side note: Interesting to see the heavy use of flags on captured weaponry, which goes back to the discussion of flags in the Liwa Al-Islam videos.


  1. The key argument that western governments are using is that no one but the Syrian state could possibly have carried out an attack with sarin on a scale large enough to kill hundreds of people. If there had been a mass casualty event caused by sarin, this would be a strong argument. It's unlikely that insurgents or the states that sponsored them could have produced sarin by the ton, together with rockets that could disperse it as an aerosol, However there now seems to be agreement that sarin was delivered by about a dozen UMLACA rockets, each carrying no more than 50 litres of binary precursors likely to give low yield of sarin in warheads not designed to disperse it as an aerosol. If the corpses seen on video weren't killed by sarin, it's entirely plausible that the insurgents killed them for instance by gas in confined spaces. .

    1. At this stage we're still analyzing the evidence. We'll get to final conclusions soon.

    2. 50 liters * 12 = 600 liters

      Spread out across about 11 neighborhoods according to some sources.

  2. The Saudi and Qatar sending thousands tons weapons and munitions via Turkey to Syria and the CIA via Benghazi to Turkey.

  3. One issue that should be addressed is the rocket motor on the 300mm+ devices.

    I've searched for conventional rocket artillery that might match. The best I can find is a 117mm Chinese device that looks around the correct length but is obviously slightly skinnier.

    I'm inclined to think the motor is a custom build - though possibly it's a smaller rocket inserted in an outer sleeve for mechanical fixing to the payload and fins?

    Even if it was a custom build, that's not hard to do. Amateur rocket makers often build similar size rocket tubes and cast their own grain without any special mechanical skill or tooling. NB I'm pretty sure there is more than one type of motor used in the different 300mm+ variants.

    I realise however, that may not make much difference to your theory that the rockets could have been pilfered.

    The other source of rocket evidence of course is spent missiles of which we know of quite a few. In a hard cynical world, one could imagine these being collected and reused as planted evidence - in the midst of conventional bombardment including by HE versions.

    1. I was about to do exactly what you did.

      This closeup of UMLACA #197 shows a welded seam running the full length of the tube. It is unlikely a welded tube could withstand the pressure of the solid fuel rocket motor. Why would they use a poorly welded tube, when all kinds of high quality steel and aluminium tubing is available off the self?

      It is far more likely that the 120 mm tube is just a shroud around a standard rocket. The shroud is needed to keep the fins in place. The inside would be – wait a minute while I calculate – about 117 mm! The welded construction would be chosen because no standard tubing would fit the 117 mm rocket.

      P.S. – There is plenty of evidence that shows that the UMLACA has been mainly used for what it was designed for – as a thermobaric weapon.

    2. I wasn't aware of the weld seam. A 'roughly' welded seam strongly implies a sub-rocket. Given the wide variety of drawn tubing available it would be silly to weld a tube with a very specific diameter and internal welding bulges to somehow fit a grain.

      More likely it is a structural element and the actual motor is mounted internally using compliant spacers. That would also mean smaller than 117mm. 120mm tube of 2mm steel plus 1mm weld would be 115mm internal unless they honed the inside somehow. You'd be looking at a rocket 112-115mm - 116mm max. (O.K. maybe 117mm if they went for 1mm steel casing and high quality internal honing)

      There should be video evidence somewhere of a sub-rocket casing separate from the structural part.

    3. Interesting stuff. Keep updating with findings.

    4. This image appears to show a sub-casing

      My problem is that it's very thin in comparison to the other metalwork. I doubt it would be able to contain full rocket thrust on its own.

      It may be that it's designed to comply with an outer casing that then takes the full pressure - it acts sort sort of like a gasket? Or it is a compliant liner of the rocket grain suitable only for transport and loading?

    5. Further searching shows this image with a more substantial tube that could well be a full-pressure motor-tube.

    6. @Charles, this image in the Brown Moses photoset on Facebook show the inner tube. I seems to have an olive drab paint with an lighter primer. This suggest a standard military grade rocket engine is used.

      I cannot agree with the 120 mm diameter suggested by Brown Moses and HRW in this diagram. Another image from the same set suggests a circumference of 42 cm. (Or is the guy holding his fingers under the tape?) I think 122 mm for the inside diameter may be closer to the truth, meaning the standard GRAD rockets could be used.

      The distinctive feature is the exit nozzle. This image shows the rear end of one version of the GRAD. I have had trouble finding images of the nozzle itself. (Seems like photographers are more interested in the business end of missiles.) This is about the only image I found. This version has 7 boilerplate holes for nozzles, a design typical for Soviet artillery rockets and later adapted for the Qassam. It may be that some other version of 122 mm "GRADs" would use a unitary nozzle design but so far I have not found it.

      On other issues, we still think the UMLACA is mainly a thermobaric weapon.

    7. I just can't see how this is a thermobaric weapon and the rockets are so intact and clean.
      I don't think we can associate damage in the area of the rocket with the rocket. These areas have been an intense war zone for over a year.

    8. Petri,

      The circumference measurement you show of 420mm converts to 133mm diameter.

      The thickness of the outer case metal in various images could be between 3 and 5mm. at 5mm it would be very heavy but a good match for a 122mm rocket. Possibly a thinner version with a compliant sleeve is used?

      Factor in the diagram at which shows a segmental 122mm rocket with joining sleeves where the different segments are screwed together (cf RPG-7) OD is set by the OD of the joining sleeve. The nozzle and first short segment appears to be removable by screwing and presumably could be replaced by a non-spinning nozzle.


      The UN shows the 300mm+ rocket with ~120mm OD.

      My conclusion is that two types of motor are used for the HE and "CW" variants. Probably, as you suggest, a 122mm for the HE variant and a smaller diameter rocket of unknown type for the CW variant

      *possibly* motor segments screwed together to make a longer rocket?

    9. I wouldn't rely on a circumference measurement done by a retractable meter, as they are designed to resist bending. There is no way it's tight around the tube the whole way.
      The 120 mm measurements seem pretty reliable to me.

    10. sasa wawa

      The tape was flat. That, and the tang sticking up, says the printing we see is on the 'back' of the tape and the tape was able to be flattened against the tubing. (I wish most tapes were double sided like this)

      The error in circumference would be a couple of millimetres at most and diameter one third that.

      P.S. I did tests on a number of different radius curve objects and conformance was excellent on much tighter radii.

    11. I just don't see why rely on an indirect calculation from an image where the tape is not shown, instead of many images directly measuring the diameter.

    12. Measuring circumference and calculating diameter is three times more accurate than measuring diameter given the same measuring instrument accuracy - an error in circumference of x mm translates to an error in diameter of x/pi mm.

      While I don't disagree many measurements indicate ~120mm they are mostly not accurate because of parallax between the linear ruler and the tube behind it. The error will always show a smaller diameter than actual.

      End-tube measurements may not be accurate either. For instance the 140mm rocket has a 130mm nozzle section.

      The most accurate measurement would be by callipers. Second most accurate by circumference measurement, and least accurate by 'stick' comparison.

  4. For a good look at the rocket itself, the casing and other interesting details, look no further than this:

    This was part of Brown Moses' original UMLACA investigation, where a lot of attention was given to "the mystery component" seen at the very beginning. No one gave much thought to the overall design of the rocket. But a noteworthy thing is that this rocket was never fired. It is completely intact - implying it was either stolen from the SAA or from some other source on the ground. The center of the front part of the shaft seems to be filled with some kind of explosive, the person speaking also seem to be excited over "TNT".

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I initially thought you may have something big here, but looking at
      you can see the rocket at an earlier time, showing significant damage. The heavy weight of the warhead absorbed all the energy and allowed the rest to remain mostly intact.

  5. I would argue that the damage we see is insignificant - keep in mind how thin the casing is. Anyway - the UMLACA is intact enough to be dismantled in its entirety, including the rocket with casing. That was my main point. If we can infer that this is a "stolen" UMLACA, well - that is a bonus ;-)

  6. This video shows the Egyptian manufactured Sakr 122 mm rocket. Note it is made of multiple segments screwed together together with a screw-on warhead and a screw-on nozzle assembly.

    Sakr 122mm rockets have been produced in four lengths, with designations of Sakr-10, Sakr-18, Sakr-36, and Sakr-45, for their approximate ranges.

    The different model lengths are created essentially by screwing more motor segments together and adding a nozzle segment and a choice of warheads.

    A good description of the Sakr rocket is found at

    Of note is that it's used by the SAA and insurgents (captured ordnance) and uses different warheads.

    We have a 122mm internal rocket tube from the 300mm+ device shown here in end view

    An image I think from the same set

    Shows a circumference of 420mm corresponding to a 133mm OD as previously discussed.

    The video at

    Shows a rocket nozzle segment being unscrewed from an HE variant - as well as separation of the motor segments from the payload.

    Outside of evidence. Consider you were the SAA or insurgents. Would you invent a totally new rocket motor for the 300mm+ device or would you take standard inventory items - 122mm cargo rockets or 107mm rockets and use them with adaptors to make your siege missiles?

    1. I see you have figured out most of what I was going to say.

      It is amazing how familiar the rebels are with the structure of the UMLACA when they start to disassemble it. Even more amazing is that they are in possession of an the mystery "bicycle pump" component. It is not part of the HA variant and only comes with the thermobaric version. (A CW variant would not have one either, as the payload is not intended to explode.)

      Yes, the Egyptian GRAD is very similar to the rocket we see in the UMLACA. The foldable fins are most likely attached by screwing the nozzle to the first element. Leaving them out or removing them would be simple. The nozzle seems to be of a bit thicker construction in the UMLACA than in the Egyptian GRAD.

    2. I hadn't considered the 'bicycle pump' in relation to the HE version.

      It's certainly not required and it would never look clean and unused in the HE disassembly video if it had been embedded in the HE matrix - which we presume is the only location it could be.

      This indicates the insurgents had access to two 300mm+ devices when they made the video but chose to include only the 'bicycle pump' from one at the start of the video.

      Alternatively it may be the disassembly video is a composite of clips by a mid-level propagandist using different sources (I'm being technical, not judgemental)

  7. I must add this realization that I had the other night. I continued being tormented by the question of why the SAA would design a wholly new type of rocket, like the UMLACA. It did not make sense to me on a number of levels, but my inherent (anti-Assad) biases demanded that I find an explanation (I have to fight the demons of my distaste for Assad on a daily basis, and I think I have handled that relatively well - most of my opponents in debates on these issues have assumed I am an Assad apologist).

    Here is why it did not make sense:

    - from BM-21 "Grad" to a variety of more advanced MLRS-style launchers;
    - possible military proficiency in building better CW munitions (CW program since end of 1980s);
    - the poor design quality of UMLACAs;
    - etc.

    I have a possible answer, however. This pontential response relies on the French intelligence about al Assad regime's chemical weapons arsenal. The answer is further premised on the following assumptions:

    - the French intelligence summary is accurate in its description of Syria's CW capability;

    - the SAA has determined, over the course of the conflict, that its existing munitions were not fit for the purpose for which the UMLACAs appear to have been used;

    - the SAA used the UMLACA's for as a delivery vehicle in an attack on Ghouta on August 21, 2013.

    The French intelligence report describes the SAA CW arsenal as follows:

    - SCUD C, with a 500 km range (capable of Sarin delivery);
    - SCUD B, with a 300 km range (capable of Sarin delivery);
    - M600 missiles, with an estimated range of 250-300 km (capable of Sarin delivery);
    - SS21 missiles, with a 70 km range (capable of Sarin delivery);
    - aerial bombs, with an estimate capacity of 100-300 litres of CW (capable of Sarin delivery);
    - artillery rockets, specifically of the 302 et 320 calibre, with a range of 50 km (capable of Sarin delivery).

    The French report does not mention any munitions/delivery vehicles with a range suitable for a delivery of CW within the Damascus urban area. In fact, considering that the Syrian arsenal was devised as a strategic deterrent against Israel, the types of munitions listed are exactly the types of delivery vehicles we would expect to see for Syria to effectively target Israel.

    Here comes the conclusion:

    - if the SAA/al Assad regime made a decision that it would use CW in relatively close quarters, i.e. in the Damascus urban area, and would deliver CW using battlefield techniques, AND did not want to alert any of its weapons suppliers (Russia, Iran) to its use of CW, then it would make sense that it would develop a new delivery platform. The strategic arsenal aimed at Israel is not very useful in fighting guerrillas.

    These are rather significant assumptions. I also have no way of knowing SAA's manufacturing/production capabilities. The UMLACAs do not appear to be particularly well made. I also have no way of knowing if UMLACAs were from the outset developed as CW delivery vehicles or whether they were repurposes from a WP or HE warhead. If the latter is true, why in the world would Syria develop such shoddy, inefficient WP or HE warheads to begin with?

    However, this is at least a workable hypothesis as to why Syria would develop a new CW delivery mechanism. This discussion obviously does not address the 140mm red herring, nor does it answer the question "why?" would the SAA use CW on August 21, 2013.

    1. The SAA and Government Research Laboratories appear to have developed a number of 'IRAM' style missiles. We know for certain that 107mm powered units are deployed for use by SAA units. See

      (These have also been captured intact by the insurgents)

      We also know Hezbollah have developed a version very similar to the 'UMLACA' but obviously 107mm powered. See

      The reason for developing them is because a lot of the urban fighting is very close quarters, and being able to fire a very heavy explosive charge at your enemy across the street is a very good idea - sure as hell beats sending in suicide bombers.

      The bigger versions called 'UMLACA' are a siege weapon when used with HE. It's actually a Syrian innovation but based on centuries old techniques.

      Some of the UMLACA images show brown liquid splashes. I'd bet good money that the brown is the remnants of a pyrotechnic payload - White Phosphorus, Red Phosphorus, or heavy fuel oil. There is also the argument they are FAE units. I don't think the evidence is particularly strong for that due to the odd dispersing that would be involved and the lack of obvious cloud detonators. Let's say, wait and see.

      So the why is easy:. to blow the shit out of the guy across the street or in the next neighbourhood. Aircraft sorties are now very limited so the infantry does the next best thing.

      Then we come to CW. I seriously, seriously, doubt the SAA did it. I think spent UMLACA are a good prop to blame the Government, especially if the concept has been pushed relentlessly for months by a certainly not disinterested blogger.

    2. So. you are saying that UMLACA are primarily useful because of the low minimum range - i.e. kind of like lobbing a super-charged enormous grenade (hopefully you duck for cover before it hits).

      I have my own reasons to pretty much entirely disregard Mr. Higgins by this point. I give his analysis zero credibility. One of his latest missives regarding use of non-military-coloured vehicles is more or less laughable. Yes, true the vehicles are not painted in "military" colours (what are "military" colours in this war anyways? - Russian BM-21 "Grad" colours? - well, those have been the same colour for close to 40 years now). But it does not escape the eye that the SAA vehicles he shows and the Iranian vehicles he shows are the same make - Mercedez Benz 2631s. That's because they are the same weapons platform - Fadjr-5. So what?

      Who won't dear Mr. Higgins instead analyze whether the vehicle allegedly firing the UMLACA is related to those or not (I can't make it out - it may or may not be, but that is the real question to ask, isn't it?).

      Other than that, I see your point. Makes sense. But it also makes sense to me if you were going to lob a CW grenade around the street corner, you would not be using a SCUD to do this. The better question is: why would you ever want to thrown an overweight CW grenade around the street corner?

    3. Firing CW? Infantry simply wouldn't do it. It's not only a specialised skill, it's very dangerous. You would need specialised CW units and the normal artillery danger-close rules would apply, only much more so.

      A CW attack would require all front-line infantry to withdraw a serious distance. There is no report that happened.

      Assuming a Government attack it would need specialised CW units operating independently from the regular infantry and under very high level orders.

      We get down to why. I doubt the Government is bat-shit crazy or that Bashar al-Assad is a homicidal psychopath.

      CW is strategic like nukes. You don't give one star generals authority to fire at will and certainly don't give them unfettered access to the munitions. Any order would require serious Government involvement and a lot of people working the numbers on what would happen. It would also require the SAA leadership - quite separate from the Government and certainly more powerful - to agree

      For once, the Russian explanation is the good one. Nobody in the Syrian Government or SAA would be so stupid as to order it to happen.

      Which then leads to our friend Higgins and his obviously structured campaign for the past year.

      I hate conspiracy theories, but it really does look to me like a 'false flag' (euggh!) operation with a propaganda element layed down over a year or so tying in remarkably nicely with the execution on August 21.

    4. Charles, you probably realized I was being cute in many of my exclamations :). I have kept all the arguments about logic, stupidity of the Syrian regime, etc. (which are all extremely powerful, but, at law, evidence of propensity and motivation and therefore irrelevant until we have completed the investigation of the body of less contentious evidence) in my backpocket. I have tried not to rely on them because it leads straight into emotionally-charged arguments (same as with 1,400 dead babies - entirely irrelevant how many or even if anybody was killed as per international law). But all your points are correct.

      On the other hand, al Assad is a sociopath and a dictator - not sure if he is also a psychopath, but his brother certainly is. All that, however, is also irrelevant.

      As for the substance of our discussion, Branch 450 (Scientific Studies and Research Centre), the branch responsible for the CW arsenal, filling munitions, etc., has little, if any relation to the Republican (Presidential Guard) - that's why the attention to that UMLACA video, particularly in the context of the CW controversy, is primarily fodder for the masses, and, hence, I question its credibility.

      However, yet again, all that is ultimately irrelevant. Videos are such unreliable sources of evidence. It just frustrates the hell out of me as to how much importance has been placed on them. (Oh, HRW, the bright guiding star of the human rights community, how low you have fallen - collecting evidence from Skype and youtube videos!).

      There are no such things as conspiracy theories. There are simply the selfish national interests, group interests and personal interests that interweave in pursuit of personal gain. Reality, not conspiracy, nothing more, nothing less. People have done far crazier things - I see the weird schemes people invent in court all the time. This whole charade (if it is, in fact, a charade) is peanuts in comparison.

    5. As I mentioned I work a lot in the law area. My clients are drug-dealers, child pornographers, murderers, and paedophiles. Most of them are as nice as you could imagine - plus a few psychopaths but also outwardly friendly.

      They are all liars, sometimes extremely good liars. The psychopaths are worst. They usually have extremely good people skills and no morals whatsoever. They manipulate at every possible moment.

      Propensity? In my jurisdiction the prosecution tries to pull that in if at all possible, however a good defence will get it blocked. Sadly some of my lawyers are not good at that. More usual is recklessness when it can be an element of a crime. Recklessness is wonderful! It's extremely hard to disprove - which is often where I come in.

      Getting back to Syria, you have a lot of potential propensity evidence against the Government from aerial attacks, artillery bombardments, oppressive detention etc. What I haven't seen yet is any evidence of a systematic Government policy of genocide or even ethnic cleansing - unlike the Islamists.

      In the specific instance of August 21 I have seen no firm evidence of Government involvement. I have seen lots of suggestions and I have seen evidence of a sustained campaign to implicate the Government for months now (BM & co)

      The US 'evidence' is weak to non-existent. It's obviously politically generated for policy reasons.

      Barring any new evidence I would say the evidence against the Government is very weak.

    6. Back to the UMLACA; yes it is a siege weapon, fired from the closest thing to a siege engine we have seen for centuries. The civilian colors of the trucks are very becoming for the slow stationary use in civilian neighborhoods. No need for camouflage.

      There are reports of the Syrian Army dropping barrels of explosives from helicopters. Firing UMLACAs from 1 km away may not be as precise, but safer for the crew.

      I believe the thermobaric version is a "bunker buster". It is used for collapsing underground tunnels. It would not be fired on built-up areas, but on the open spaces between neighborhoods.

      There is evidence of the use of thermobaric explosives in Zamalka. I have always wondered why thermobaric explosives are called "vacuum bombs"? This photo of Zamalka is indicative of the effect. Walls have collapsed outward while the furniture inside has not even been moved.

    7. @Charles, the improvised rocket-assisted munition uses either a 140 mm Soviet rocket or a 128 mm Yugoslav rocket. Both have the same type of "telephone rotary dial" type of ring of nozzles in rear end. See here at 1m 11s in the video. Is there some way to distinguish the two? If this is a 140 mm rocket, then this could well be the type of device seen in Moadamiyah. The original warhead seems to have been removed.

      The video was also discussed here. The rocket is fired from the Zablatani Tower toward Jobar.

    8. The rocket shown in your video link has 8 nozzles.

      The 140mm rocket has 10

      and the 128 mm has 7

      The rocket is most likely a 107mm model

    9. Perti,

      They are called vacuum bombs for two reasons I believe.

      1. The demolition effect is by the negative pressure wave after the detonation. The detonation produces a shock-wave travelling at the speed of sound. This is a very high pressure short duration wave that does some damage. Following it is a longer period 'negative' low pressure wave. When this passes, buildings literally explode into the 'vacuum'. This is the major cause of damage.

      2. The bomb uses up most of the available oxygen when it goes off. People in the strike zone not killed by blast suddenly find they have no oxygen to breath - or that at least is the story. I remember the fall of South Vietnam when these type bombs were used and the news reports of NVA tropps being found suffocated to death. Probably those bombs were larger than found in Syria.

    10. Petri, re negative pressure.

      I was wrong just now on two counts.

      - The shock wave travels faster than the speed of sound at a velocity determined by the absolute blast pressure.

      - The initial overpressure causes most damage - though the following negative pressure wave and wind are responsible for spreading the debris out and away from the buildings.

  8. Rebels in possesion of UMLACA launcher

    1. This seems to be in Iraq.

    2. Interesting, but I think it's not enough to identify as UMLACA.

    3. The attack on American forces in Iraq by Kata'ib Hezbollah happened on April 28. 2008. Here is a video of the attack. Here is another attack from 2011. This Iraqi Hezb Allah group is not related to the Lebanese group.

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