Wednesday 12 December 2018

Developer team set to save lives with new cost-effective drone rescue app

The task of building a highly effective app required strong collaborative effort

Oisin McGrath, Leo Murray, Matthew Kelly and Gearoid O’Briain of DroneSAR
Oisin McGrath, Leo Murray, Matthew Kelly and Gearoid O’Briain of DroneSAR

John Cradden

It's quite common for a single individual or else a partnership of two to be the driving force behind an Irish startup. But this Donegal-based software firm is notable for the degree of teamwork among four individuals, each with a critical and indispensable role to play by virtue of their specific skill-sets.

DroneSAR is a software platform designed to enable commercially available, off-the-shelf drones to be used as part of search and rescue missions. The idea is simple, but it becomes clear that it's a hugely complex thing to make a reality.

It's led by chief executive Oisin McGrath, who is also a military helicopter instructor and examiner, but working alongside fellow founders Matthew Kelly (chief technology officer), Leo Murray (director of R&D) and Gearoid O Briain (director of sales and marketing), who each have expertise in drone technology, network and satellite communication and search and rescue (SAR) co-ordination and emergency response.

"This product could only be designed by a team with specific skill-sets, as it is designed for rescue teams, with huge input from the teams themselves," said McGrath.

Murray is deputy team leader in Donegal Mountain Rescue and has a background in product research and design, while Kelly is an award-winning app developer and mountain rescue volunteer with degrees in electronics and satellite communications. The fourth member, O Briain, who is currently on a scholarship in Smurfit Business School, completing his MBA, is a military manned and unmanned aircraft instructor.

McGrath says that while he is CEO, the others are each responsible for distinct areas that tend not to overlap that much, and their skills fit into place perfectly. "We operate really efficiently in our spare time...and I think that's been a huge advantage to us in the last two years."

The potential for using drones for search and rescue has been clear for some time, and there has been at least one case where it has saved lives. Early this year in Australia, two swimmers who were struggling in powerful surf conditions were saved when a dedicated rescue drone operated by the local coast guard flew over to them and dropped an inflatable rescue pod.

However, the drone used in this case was specially designed and built at considerable expense with the sponsorship of the Australian government. But as off-the-shelf, commercially available drones become more capable, cheaper and with longer battery life the potential for using these to help cash-strapped search and rescue teams worldwide is also becoming apparent.

"All the rescue teams across the world are using drones and it's a hot topic, but nobody has yet addressed the issue of using these machines with already existing rescue protocols; that hasn't been done in the world and that's what we are designing," said McGrath.

The DroneSAR story all started when Kelly, who was participating in the New Frontiers entrepreneurship development programme in Donegal, was demonstrating one of a number of app solutions that directly integrate with drone technology at an open day when he caught the attention of Murray, who wanted to know if the drone could be used for finding people in a search and rescue.

So they took the drone out on a mountain rescue training day in Donegal and they were elated to find that the drone was three times faster than a five-man team. "This was a eureka moment," said McGrath.

After teaming up with drone manufacturer DJI and Donegal Mountain Rescue to develop and trial Kelly's app (alongside a number of other SAR teams internationally), it became clear that the app on its own would only be one of the pieces of the overall DroneSAR solution.

"With the 18 months of research that we did with input from rescue teams all over the world, what became clear was that they were able to use a drone but they didn't have any automatic grid patterns, for example, and they weren't able to share location with the SAR command and control people who were making decisions. Decision-makers weren't at the scene where it was operating and they weren't able to see the live video. So basically it was just the drone pilots flying solo; there was no integration into their actual SAR system."

That prompted the DroneSAR team to develop a web browser element so that incident control can log in to see the video feed from the drone, as well as track its location in real time.

The software also programmes drones to rapidly execute a customised aerial search pattern, which is filled automatically, based on variables such as altitude, field of view, battery life and probability of detection.

The worldwide UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) market is already valued at nearly $20bn (€17bn), and is projected to reach over $50bn by 2025.

The obvious cost-effectiveness in being able to use standard drones is clearly one of the attractions for the 1,200 people who have made enquiries about the app, which will be available for a monthly or annual subscription.

"The biggest limitation is battery life. At the moment, we're getting 25 minutes on these smaller drones that we use but we are aiming squarely at the commercially available drones costing €1,000 or €2,000," said McGrath. "Many teams don't have the money to spend on a €40k drone, or else their entire budget for the year would have gone."

The firm also has a number of international resellers on board, mainly sourced from existing dealers of DJI drones.

It has been available in Ireland effectively as a test market to see what sort of customer support infrastructure was required before it launches internationally over the next few weeks.

The firm currently employs two people but also has four contractors including web developers, IOS developers and drone experts.

In the meantime, the company has achieved a lot of recognition through a number of awards and projects, including with the European Space Agency, the European Satellite Navigation Competition, and the Copernicus Incubator Programme. It is also looking at markets beyond search and rescue. "Already we've been approached by people from security firms, pollution control and humanitarian disaster relief for the same product to be used just in a different sense."

With other jobs besides DroneSAR, McGrath says he and his fellow directors can find it hard to balance work with life. "With the drones, there would be a lot of evening time work and weekends, plus a lot of my annual leave time would be taken up with conferences and all that stuff."

The one thing that they all seem to enjoy, though, is the opportunity to talk about the company and build on their international partnerships. "I think between the four of us everybody loves going to the conferences, meeting people and talking about what we do, talking about what they do, and how we can fit in with what they're doing."

dronesarpilot.com

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