Companies which serve both the defence sector and civil society are seeing a considerable uptick
When Pat O’Connor returned from his final operational deployment with the Irish Defence Forces in Syria, he knew he wanted to make change happen.
He just had to find out how.
Syria’s brutal civil war, which began in 2011 and is still ongoing, left its mark on O’Connor – who served in the Irish Defence Forces for 22 years.
He got speaking with friend Niall Campion, who had experience in visual effects, about his time in the war-torn country and his belief that technology could make a difference when training for extreme environments. An idea was born.
“I came home from Syria thinking ‘This can happen’,” he says. “You meet Syrians, and whatever perceptions people might have, they were saying that they never saw it happening – that they never expected a civil war to break out.
“When I came back from Syria, Niall and I started talking about it, and I said, ‘We need to find ways to get people ready for these conditions better and quicker. Surely technology can help?’
“Niall identified a number of technologies maturing at the same time – virtual reality, cloud, internet of things – and he had a vision for what our product could do to help train people better, faster and with more insights from data.
“It’s all based on trying to help people prepare better for these conditions,” O’Connor adds. “The Irish Defence Forces was our focus for that.”
In 2017 O’Connor and Campion set up VRAI [Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence], a data-driven simulation company that combines virtual reality and artificial intelligence to make simulation training more “authentic, memorable and measurable”.
Its high-profile international clients include IAG in Heathrow Airport and the UN in Somalia. It has also worked with several offshore engineering firms and the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the UK with its training technology. Its business is split 50pc between defence applications and civil.
Last week, VRAI announced a significant boost for its training technology. VRAI has partnered with arms, security, and aerospace company BAE Systems to form new training methods for militaries that will allow soldiers to participate in complex collective scenarios in a secure environment.
The companies have plans to further develop a single synthetic environment, or ‘metaverse’, to enable air, land, sea, space, and cyber forces to plug in and train alongside one another in a single virtual world.
“BAE is an incredible partner,” says O’Connor. “For a company like us, to achieve scale with our products, we need partners that can help us achieve that scale. Obviously, BAE Systems are a leading company globally in any area.”
Like other companies operating in Ireland’s defence sector, VRAI’s products and services are considered “dual-use technology”. This means the technology can be used for military and civilian purposes. In VRAI’s case, this can range from its virtual reality training software being used to help train offshore wind engineers, to assisting peacekeepers learning how to spot landmines.
O’Connor, who is also chairman of the Irish Defence and Security Association (IDSA), believes Irish companies with dual-use technologies can tap into the surging defence spending globally to grow and create jobs. Many are already doing so.
IDSA research estimates there are around 548 foreign and domestic firms active in the Irish defence ecosystem, with the defence sector supporting around 1,739 ICT jobs in Ireland. Their research suggests the value of combined dual-use and defence exports from Ireland was €2.4bn in 2019. By comparison, Ireland’s beef exports totalled €2.3bn in the same year – €100m less.
Irish companies in this space don’t sell bombs or guns to militaries. Instead, firms are largely active in providing humanitarian, non-lethal equipment to the defence sector. They save lives, rather than take them.
Growth in the defence industry is happening. Boosting job creation and innovation, as well as helping meet the needs of the Irish Defence forces, are the aims.
A common EU defence fund has been established, which the industry views as vital.
Minister for Defence Simon Coveney recently announced the State’s defence budget would rise from €1.1bn to €1.5bn by 2028.
With €8bn to be spent on defence in Ireland between now and then, O’Connor hopes Ireland’s dual-use companies in defence – from cyber security, drone technology, robotics and software – can tap into the country’s inherent strength in tech to win more deals and grow.
“There has been a complete 180 degrees turn on defence spending trends since the war in Ukraine,” he says.
“If you juxtapose that increase in spending with the challenges around supply chains internationally, I think you’ll see an increasing percentage of that spending on technology, rather than things made from metal.
“That’s a really big opportunity for Ireland and for Irish SMEs.”
Other Irish firms in the dual-use technology space are tapping into defence sector opportunities at home and abroad.
Cybersecurity experts Smarttech247 and data classification firm Getvisibility are two companies accessing international opportunities in the defence space, particularly in North America.
Ronan Murphy, a founder of Getvisibility and the executive chairman of Smarttech247, says the US Department of Defense introduced the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification for US government contractors, to stop the theft of intellectual property and sensitive information. With that, more companies involved in defence must get up to speed if they want to service the US market.
“That’s proving a very good hunting ground for us,” says Murphy. “We have got some huge clients in North America that are utilising Smarttech and Getvisibility to get a number of different areas of cybersecurity strengthened. It’s a growth area with lots of opportunities.”
He says being Irish is a positive factor when it comes to selling into the US defence sector.
“Being Irish, there are good synergies selling into the US and into the defence industrial base,” he says. “If you were Chinese or Russian, for instance, it’d be impossible – irrespective of the quality of your product.”
While the sector is valuable, Murphy says it’s a “hard nut to crack”, given how highly regulated it is.
“You need to be able to demonstrate referenceability,” he says. “It probably wouldn’t be the kind of ground to cut your teeth in.”
Opportunities for dual-use tech companies are already strong closer to home, with research helping to bolster companies’ ambitions.
A-techSYN, a Shannon-based unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) company founded in 2016 by Turkish entrepreneur Gökhan Çelik, has successfully developed large drone systems that can be used in the defence sector for ISR (intelligence, surveying and reconnaissance). In addition, it has civil uses, such as mapping and railway inspections.
The company is the main UAV company in the Tyndall National Institute’s GUARD Project, which seeks to help intercept drug smugglers off Ireland’s coasts using smart drone systems. A-TechSYN is also working with the Irish Naval and Defence Forces on the use of drones.
Çelik believes Ireland’s openness to tests and trials is a crucial strength, and could open the door for systems to be sold to other small countries.
“The Defence Forces are very responsive and keen to support you. They need something, and they know what they need. In bigger countries, you have more bureaucracy – it is very hard to work with the defence sector there,” he says.
Beyond Irish markets, Çelik says A-techSYN is now at a stage of global expansion, selling its drones in Turkey and most recently in Denmark for cargo delivery. It also builds target drones at a facility in Turkey, which imitate planes and rockets for militaries to shoot down.
Despite export opportunities, Çelik feels Ireland’s neutrality can sometimes “hold back” support and projects, due to nervousness.
“Some institutions don’t want to be involved, because it’s the defence sector,” he says. He also noted he has experienced some issues with the export licencing system here for dual-use products.
Kerry-based robotics firm Reamda is another dual-use company which benefits from having Irish roots.
“Some countries are known for their navy , airforce, or their massive infantry battalions – but Ireland is seen as a world leader in bomb disposal,” says Reamda founder Padraig O’Connor. “It’s a huge endorsement if you have the Irish Defence Forces as a customer.”
Reamda’s machines are used for humanitarian work in bomb disposal and mine clearance, and are mainly sold to police, but also to some militaries, including the Defence Forces.
Asked about export licences, O’Connor says there can be “raised eyebrows” when selling to some countries – but insists he finds the process very efficient. He has not had any licence applications turned down.
O’Connor says Reamda was out-the-door busy, with the company’s order book now full, and next year’s “looking even better”.
The company is now looking at expanding in the next two years (they’ve bought a new site three times the size of its existing premises), and potentially growing its workforce to up to 70 staff. It currently hires 20 people.
Reamda isn’t the only dual-use company with growth plans. A-techSYN is also looking at raising money for a global expansion, with Çelik hoping to raise “no less than €25m”. He also hopes to have at least 300 staff in Ireland within the next five years, up from the current 15.
VRAI’s Pat O’Connor underlines the increased confidence amongst Ireland’s dual-use companies around investment. He says investor appetites toward defence – especially towards dual-use technology – have changed since Russia’s war in Ukraine, with a recent Financial Times opinion piece questioning whether defence stocks should now be viewed as ESG (environmental, social, and governance).
“I think there is a shift,” he said. “Europe is saying we need to develop this capability to keep our society safe – therefore we need to make it okay for investment to go into that.”
Looking ahead, O’Connor has high hopes for Ireland’s dual-use technology companies, particularly given the high standards in this sector. For the former Defence Forces member, the sector can only propel Ireland’s technological capabilities to the next level across multiple industries.
“The reason we looked at the defence sector is because it’s where technologies often mature first – like the internet and GPS,” he says.
“They often come about because there is a clear need, plus a source of funding in defence and security.
"Then when it matures, you can bring it to adjacent industries – and that’s very much our focus.”