Futurists predict that drone technology will soon significantly transform our daily lives, changing how we deliver and collect goods, giving us new ways to monitor and understand the world around us, and even revolutionising emergency services.
However, the rollout of drone applications is currently hampered by a lack of innovative technologies that can guarantee the safe and regulated operation of drones around our town, cities and rural environments.
In response to this challenge, Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development, John Halligan TD today announced funding from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) of €1.8m – with a further €4.5m investment from industry (cash and in-kind) to Dr Tim McCarthy, Maynooth University Department of Computer Science and National Centre for Geocomputation, for a new drone technology initiative known as U-Flyte.
U-Flyte is an SFI Strategic Research Partnership award based at Maynooth University that involves collaboration with partners across the aviation industry and includes input from Airbus, Irelandia Aviation, Intel and 15 other relevant companies and agencies with an active interest in the development and deployment of drone technology.
Speaking at the launch, Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development, John Halligan TD, said: “The U-Flyte programme will play a hugely important role in developing drone technology for use around the world, and it is using Waterford Airport as a test bed. This highlights Ireland’s ability to ‘punch above its weight’ when it comes to the research and development of science and technology, as well as how quickly ‘Ireland Inc.’ can bring together diverse industry stakeholders to drive progress.”
Commenting on the launch, Dr Tim McCarthy said: “Drone technology has the potential to be used for a wide range of practical applications, from the simple delivery of online shopping to capturing data for maps of farms, forests, lake and coastlines, and providing security surveillance in vulnerable areas. Experts even foresee drones being used to transport life-saving medical supplies, or coming to the aid of swimmers, making search and rescue operations safer and more efficient than ever before. However, new research is required to ensure that drones can operate safely and securely. This project will be using the latest navigation, optical, and radar sensors onboard our drones to gather data and feed it back through a system of connected secure networks to powerful computing platforms.”
Unless they have secured special permission, drone operators are limited to maintaining their drones within 300m circumference and in sight of the operator at all times, and at no more than 120m flying height above the ground. These guidelines, although necessary, restrict the wider development and uptake of drone applications and services – not only in Ireland but also across the globe.
The aim of U-Flyte is to tackle the current global log-jam impeding the wider development of drone operation and the roll-out of commercial services by providing the necessary research, data and case studies to guide agencies and industry in allowing drones to safely fly further and higher than the current limits.
The programme will see researchers recreate flying environments for drones as digital models, taking into account a wide range of factors like air traffic, buildings and electricity lines, and then testing them in the real world at Waterford Airport and other selected locations around Ireland.
Waterford Airport was chosen as the ideal main testing location for U-Flyte because the facility possesses its own controlled airspace with a manned air-traffic control tower, providing U-Flyte researchers with a real-world, yet highly secure and safe flight test environment. The airport location also provides easy access to the coastline and offshore areas, allowing researchers to test higher performance drones for marine applications, such as ocean data collection and search and rescue.
Dr Tim McCarthy said: “U-Flyte is going to play a vital role in helping the development of drone applications, as well as give us essential data, which in turn, will contribute greatly to how we teach artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and data science at Maynooth. The input from our industry stakeholders means we will have access to real-life scenarios and challenges, ensuring more robust modelling and useful applications.”
Margie McCarthy, Director of Innovation and Education at Science Foundation Ireland commented: “Science Foundation Ireland is delighted to support Maynooth University’s U-Flyte initiative. The potential societal impact of drone technology spans multiple sectors including agriculture, marine, emergency services, and transportation. However, drone capabilities have outpaced the supporting regulations and technologies. The SFI Strategic Partnerships Programme facilitates the collaboration of key researchers, government bodies and industry partners to collectively pave the way for U-Flyte and other disruptive technologies to challenge our norms and capitalise on the advantages offered by innovative and impactful research and development.”
Professor Philip Nolan, President of Maynooth University said: “Today’s launch of U-Flyte serves to underline Maynooth University’s position as a scientific leader in an industry that is at the forefront of research and innovation. We are tremendously proud of this project and believe Maynooth University is uniquely positioned to carry out what is truly future-setting research because of the strong relationships with our industry partners and the interdisciplinary research strengths we bring to bear on an issue as multi-faceted and complex as the future of drone operations.”
Explaining why U-Flyte will be important to aviation giant Airbus, Project Manager at Airbus Defence and Space Chris Alexander said: “Airbus seeks to always be at the forefront of aerial research and technology, and for this reason, we are proud to collaborate with Maynooth University on the U-Flyte programme. We believe that the research undertaken by U-Flyte is going to contribute significantly to the development of drone usage not only in Ireland but on a global scale.”
Commenting on how the research project will assist in planning for the changing needs of Irish air traffic control, Ralph James, Director of Safety Regulation at the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) said; “The IAA is keen to support the development of drone technology for the greater public good in Ireland. There are already over 8,500 drones on the IAA Irish drone register, and as we prepare ourselves for the future of aviation, which will see drones become a part of everyday life, initiatives like U-Flyte will be invaluable in helping us manage an evolving Irish airspace. We look forward to working with Tim McCarthy and his team on this ground-breaking research. Research initiatives which enable business and enhance safety are always welcome.”
Director of the Irish Coast Guard, Chris Reynolds said: “Drones have the potential to make it considerably easier to collect data along our coastlines, and even aid in search and rescue operations. We look forward to working with Maynooth University and U-Flyte on the essential research to make this a reality.”
Representing Ireland’s forestry sector, Managing Director of Coillte’s Forestry Division, Gerard Murphy commented: “As a leader in the forestry industry we are delighted to be working with Maynooth University and U-Flyte in developing new, innovative drone technology that has the potential to transform the way forests and land are managed globally. Deploying advanced technologies that enable more flexible and real-time management is crucial in our business as we continue to optimise value from our forestry assets.”
Meanwhile, Brian Quinn, Intel’s Director of European Innovation predicted U-Flyte will aid Intel in its development of drone technology, saying: “Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) continue to play a much more fundamental role within our enterprises and our daily lives. Robotics, driver assisted cars and drones are real examples of this. The dependability and reliability of these systems is critical, with U-Flyte we can progress this important research agenda on drone mission systems through both hardware and software platforms.”
Irelandia Aviation, the low-cost airline developer behind Ryanair and other international budget airlines like Tiger Airways in Asia and Allegiant Air in the US, has also lent its support to U-Flyte.On behalf of Irelandia Aviation John Mac Mahon commented: “Irelandia Aviation is proud to partner with Maynooth University on the U-Flyte project. We believe the research undertaken by Tim McCarthy and his team will play a significant role in how we develop drone and unmanned aircraft applications.”
For further information on existing drone operation regulations in Ireland, go to https://www.iaa.ie/general-aviation/drones.