Drone companies target Irish expansion as industry experiences growth spurt
Duct Tape, GPS, microwave ovens, the internet... just some of the seemingly endless list of technologies which consumers take for granted nowadays but which were developed by the military. Some of these technologies were instantaneous hits, while others took a little longer for consumer to get their heads around.
Despite big money from companies such as Amazon and Google, the next military-developed technology to make it big in commercial life definitely falls in the latter category - drones.
Drone technology is best known to most consumers for its use by the US and UK military for surveillance and attack operations in Afghanistan. Like most militaries in the western world, the Irish Army and Navy have been using them for surveillance missions and to increase accuracy of weapons for some years now. However drones now look set to make a massive impact on civilian markets, whether we realise it or not.
Earlier this year, Minister for Defence Simon Coveney acknowledged as much, saying: "Ireland will be one of the world's leading countries in designing and developing the next drone technology which will attract more civil than military use."
The number of companies licensed to operate drone or UAV technology (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) by the Irish Aviation Authority has exploded from half-a-dozen a couple of years ago to over 50 today.
The Ulick McEvaddy-backed Green Aviation last week launched the largest drone yet on the Irish market, able to carry large cameras, a wider range of sensors and with improved flight times.
"Initially, people can get a little hung up on the hardware which is the drone, but essentially we are a data-processing company that happen to use drones to capture the data," says CEO Oisin Green. "We could just as easily be out gathering the data in a car or sending someone to climb up onto a wind turbine, but drones make the process far quicker, more efficient and safer," he said.
The potential uses for drones in the commercial sector are significant, but they are being adopted quickest by companies in the technology, agriculture, construction and film sectors. The drone Green demonstrated to businesses earlier in the week was developed using military technologies but has already been used in filming for movies like Harry Potter and Mission Impossible.
"We carried out a survey at a wind farm - the turbine was 800m away and we had a live feed of HD video coming into the guests - the quality was so good that even with the drone staying 250ft away, you could literally see the bolts on the rotors as they turned," he said.
The cost of this sort of technology is far removed from the small remote-controlled UAVs that hobbyists use. But according to Green, when compared with the comparative cost of manned aircraft, the reality of their value becomes apparent.
"Some of the larger drones we use cost about €250,000 but the advantage of the larger systems is that they can stay up for as long as five hours, have a range of 200km and can still send back HD imagery. That's great for Coast Guard search and rescue purposes- a fraction of the cost of a Sikorsky, which costs €7,000 an hour to keep in the air," he said.
It's not just Irish companies who see Ireland as a welcoming base for a drone company.
Jay Bregman, the co-founder and former CEO of taxi app Hailo recently announced that his start-up Verifly will set up shop in Ireland, and unlike some tech start-ups who merely put back up and sales operations in Ireland, Verifly intends to base its technology, manufacturing and intellectual property in Ireland.
Bregman says the company knew that Ireland was a great place to build technology. "We know that from the Hailo days and we knew it would be easy to find the right people here. We have a really great team in place already."
The fact that the response of the IDA, government ministers and even the Taoiseach has been extremely positive hasn't hurt either, which Bregman is quick to acknowledge.
"There was also such an overwhelming response from the Irish Government on all levels - they really want to make this a good place to commercialise drone technology," he said.
Verifly is setting its sights on commercialising and popularising drones with a new software system that will make operating drones both simpler and safer.
Bregman says the platform will use geo-fencing technology to stop users straying into dangerous areas, while also providing digital verification of flight paths to allow lower insurance costs.
Verifly and Green Aviation aren't the first and won't be the last companies to produce and operate UAV technology in Ireland and getting in early on the commercialisation of the industry is a smart move by the Government.
We may not yet appreciate how prolific they are likely to become in the next 20 years, but it is clear that drone technology is here - or more correctly 'up there' - to stay.
Sunday Indo Business