Game of drones: Why Ireland could fly high in aviation's latest frontier
It's a sector tipped to be worth at least €50bn. Unmanned flying robots can be used for aerial photography, deliveries, and even recording GAA matches. Adrian Weckler meets Hailo founder Jay Bregman and others leading Ireland's drone rush
'In ten years' time, we're all going to look up and see hundreds of drones above us." For most, this sounds a little unnerving. For Hailo founder Jay Bregman, for the IDA, for senior government figures and for a host of competing county councils, it sounds like an opportunity.
Since he stepped down from the taxi company in September, Bregman has been working on a plan to make Ireland the centre of the drone universe. And he's not alone.
Last month, a high-level strategy meeting was convened at the Dublin offices of law firm Mason, Hayes and Curran. Accompanying Bregman were former junior minister Ciaran Cannon, Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) manager Captain John Steel and a representative from the IDA, among others.
The agenda: to make Ireland the drone capital of Europe.
It may seem grandiose. But it has preliminary backing from Ireland's policy makers all the way up to Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who has asked Bregman and others to prepare a template that could inform new legislation on governing drones and their development in Ireland.
At stake, say the strategists, is first-mover advantage in a burgeoning €50bn industry. Early ideas include the development of regulator-approved "aviation boxes" in the west of Ireland, where Bregman and other technologists might develop drone technology.
"I've been spending a lot of time in Ireland looking at this," said Bregman. "This is the perfect country in which to do it. You have good technology talent here and some really good places where you can test the technology. You also have a government and officials that seem to me much more open than other countries in this regard."
But Bregman has done more than look at the options. He has started up a new Irish company called Cara for the purposes of developing the technology. And as well as engaging regulators and ministers, he has started to involve some heavyweight aeronautical executives, including one ex-NASA aviation expert.
Bregman's idea is not to build his own new brand of drone, but to create a global registry system for all drones: one that is based in Ireland.
The result would be a system that would see private drones adopting a new ID system used to verify them for commercial services. It would also help prevent accidents, such as the growing number of near-misses around airports and urban dwellings.
"Basically, we want to uniquely identify all of the robots and who they belong to," says Bregman. "Because right now there's no registration process. It's a similar idea to the early development of Verisign. Creating a secure, trusted channel that identifies drones and other autonomous robots not only will move this industry on, but is crying out to be done for safety and practical reasons."
Bregman estimates that there are around one million non-military drones active in the world. Once such a verification system is developed and accepted within the industry, it could speed up commercial services such as aerial photography, property mapping and safety inspections on construction and mining sites. It could help sports teams, such as St Mary's College GAA team which, last week, used an aerial drone to record parts of a football contest for post-match analysis. And it could help governments cut through the legal fog that is threatening to cause anarchy in the skies.
Some of the industry's existing heavy-hitters back the project.
"We spent time with Jay and also with the Irish government and the Irish prime minister on this," says Mark Heynen, head of client operations at US drone data firm Skycatch, which recently raised €11m in funding.
"We're in touch quite regularly. I think it's a great approach. Any effort to provide a layer of reliability is appreciated. Just like any vehicle, there needs to be some level of certification to make sure everyone is operating in a safe manner."
Skycatch builds its own specialised drones that can be deployed to gather critical data on large mining, construction and agriculture sites.
"You're talking about multi-billion dollar construction sites where the virtual models might change," says Heynen. "So they constantly need to make sure they're not making mistakes. And so the ultimate market is for real-time data but a lot of companies are working from outdated information. We're basically indexing and allowing the real world to be query-able. Large and small companies all want that."
One of the biggest issues that Skycatch and other drone firms face is where to develop the technology. This, says Bregman, is where Ireland can come up trumps.
"It's places outside the US that are the kernel of where some of the technology is going to metamorphose," he says. "To me, Ireland is more aggressively focused on making these technologies prosper whereas I think the US plays more defensively. Also, in the case of aviation, Ireland has a history of leading the pack: 50pc of all aviation leases still go through Dublin. Ryanair is close to the biggest airline in Europe now. In some ways this would be a micro-continuation of the aviation story for Ireland."
The strategists even have an area in mind: Mayo. With its huge landscapes and low population density, Ireland's third biggest county is also its second least populated area per square kilometre. That makes it an early favourite location for development of the technology, with few people to bother. Local authorities are keen on the idea. "There's an open door here in Mayo to drone technology," said David Minton, head of Mayo County Council's Enterprise and Investment unit.
"Indeed, we are actively pursuing it. We have vast tracts of land that have very low population density and could be perfect for testing drones. Right now, we're actively looking at areas of land that could be used for this and we're open to negotiations on areas for piloting them."
Minton says that Mayo County Council has opened "discussions" with central government and the Irish Aviation Authority on resolving planning issues that could allow areas of the county to be used for testing and developing drones.
"In the next 12 to 18 months there's going to be a sea change in the technology," says Minton. "And from a strategy point of view, we need to be there. So we're trying to build a relationship with the leading developers in the area while these policy changes are afoot. If we can try to secure the initial design and regulatory bits, it puts us closer to the guys who are constructing and developing the drones. And that's where the jobs are."
Mayo isn't the only place under consideration. "Galway Airport could also be in the frame," says Philip McNamara, managing director of VoxPro USA, a Cork company that offers outsourced technical services and which has an extensive office in San Francisco. "It isn't being used to its potential and could be a perfect spot for development and training in relation to a project like this."
Galway Airport is owned by Galway City and County Councils and leased to Ballinasloe-based Conneely Engineering, which uses the facility as an commercial aerodrome for small private aircraft. However, the 115-acre tract it is currently the subject of a number of tendered development plans which both councils are considering.
"In the west you have the most accessible wilderness in the world," says Ciaran Cannon, Fine Gael TD for Galway East and a former minister of state for education. "You can get from Dublin to wilderness in two hours. No other country has nailed this yet. The Taoiseach has taken an interest in it."
Is it really worth all of the political, regulatory and industrial effort?
Yes, say its backers. First movers are getting the riches.
"If you look at what's happening in the US, Nevada is starting to seriously benefit from California-based drone companies moving there," says Philip McNamara. "They're moving there because Nevada has been designated as an area where companies can develop and test drone technology."
McNamara set up and ran one of Europe's largest non-military drone conferences last month in Castlebar. He says that Ireland has a significant chance to get ahead of other European countries in creating the continent's centre of autonomous robotic and drone engineering.
Some elements of the European Commission agree.
A recent Commission study predicted that industrial development around drones will hit €14bn and 70,000 jobs in the next two and a half years. Other industry estimates paint an even bigger industrial scenario, with predictions of up to €75bn per year from US research analysts.
And there are signs that the US's restrictive attitude to civilian drone technology development is testing the patience of some of its biggest employers. Earlier this week, Amazon warned the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) that it could quit the US for the development of its drone technology because the aviation authority is dragging its heels on regulatory approval.
"Without approval of our testing in the United States, we will be forced to continue expanding our Prime Air R&D footprint abroad," said Amazon vice president Paul Misener in a letter to the FAA. Amazon has already started to do drone testing "in other countries with regulatory environments more supportive of small drone innovation," said Misener, referring to the UK.
Amazon is one of the most notable early adopters to drone technology in the consumer sector with its 'Amazon Prime' delivery concept. Currently under development, the idea is for small packages to be delivered in urban areas by autonomous drones.
Other companies queueing up to look at the technology include delivery firms FedEx and UPS. They join civil authorities, who also see natural uses for non-military drones. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg said the New York Police Department would soon incorporate drones as security cameras, a concept backed up by the police force's current commissioner, Bill Bratton. But this brings the issue back to the need for a central command or registration structure for the machines.
"There needs to be a core technology framework for collision avoidance," wrote Vivek Wadhwa, a senior Stanford University expert on the issue, in a VentureBeat column. "This is no small problem. How will a drone the size of a shoebox carry enough intelligence to avoid hitting a building, a person, a car, a power line or, worst case, a commercial aircraft?
"It would obviously need to be computer-driven and automatic and would need to include safety measures and emergency kill switches or other mechanisms to bring down a drone that is malfunctioning or poses a danger."
Wadhwa's concerns are well-founded in the escalating number of near-collisions being reported with aircraft and drones around airports.
Earlier this week, UK air safety chiefs revealed that an Airbus A320 plane (the airline was not disclosed) was involved in a near-collision with a drone hovering at an altitude of 700 feet near Heathrow.
The event was categorised as a "serious risk of collision". The incident is one of many in recent months.
But even if Bregman can get the technical brains lined up to create such a process and even if Irish regulatory and legislative authorities respond, there are other issues that will remain tricky obstacles.
Even in a regulated environment, the thought of "hundreds" of drones in the skies above our heads each day is a distasteful and mildly dystopian one.
The internet is already littered with daily reports of drones being used as 'peeping toms' or covert surveillance tools. Are we ready for what could be the proliferation of flying security cameras?
Bregman believes that these are issues that civil authorities will reconcile to their population's satisfaction. For him, it's about bringing control of the future to us.
"It's inevitable that drones are coming," says Bregman. "It's going to happen. I'd like for Ireland to be at the heart of it when it takes off."