Rise of the drones
Eight operators are using drones or unmanned aircraft in Ireland, new figures reveal.
While the Defence Forces use Israeli-built drones for military purposes, the remotely piloted aircraft are increasingly also being used by civilian firms.
The best known use of drones is in Afghanistan or the border regions of Pakistan, where Predators and Reapers regularly attack Taliban militants.
But tens of thousands of smaller drones are being used for photography and aerial surveys around the world.
The rapid advance in the technology means the cost of civilian drones has dropped to as little as €250. They can even be 'flown' via a smartphone.
Drones can be used for farm and forestry monitoring or even for aerial surveys of houses for property tax, one industry source confirmed.
They are also being used in the North to monitor larch trees, but could be used in future to snoop on farmers claiming too much in EU farm subsidies.
A Department of Agriculture spokeswoman in Dublin told the Herald that, while they are aware of developments in the field, "this Department does not propose to use the drone technology at the moment".
The Irish Aviation Authority confirmed that it has licensed eight users to operate unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or remotely piloted aircraft systems. All weigh less than 150kg.
"The European Aviation Safety Agency is in the process of introducing pan-European legislation to cover the operations of systems with a mass of 150kg or more," an IAA spokesman said.
"Below this weight, operations will continue to be subject to national legislation."
One firm licensed by the IAA is Cyberhawk Innovations, which carried out an aerial survey of the Great Island power plant in Co Wexford using a multi-rotor unmanned drone.
"The type of work we are involved in is inspections and surveys," Stuart Thomas of Cyberhawk said.
"For example, we do land surveys, which is an alternative way of surveying to using people with a theodolite walking the land."
The aircraft can take hundreds of thousands of images using a GPS autopilot which gives a 'GoogleMaps' style image, but is much more detailed, he said.
They can also examine 'flares' on offshore oil rigs and safety is one of their main pluses, according to Mr Thomas.
"They are being used by companies more and more, particularly for surveys and inspections," he said.
Drones are also built in Ireland, with Versadrones of Skibbereen, Co Cork, being one producer.
Tomasz Firek of Versadrones has built about 150 multi-rotor drones in the past few years.
"I developed many types and variations of them," he said.
The Versa X6 and X8 will be introduced on the market very soon, said Mr Firek, who was recently involved in a Hollywood film production in Kenya and spent two months there as the drone operator.
The eight entities that have IAA permission to operate drones are Collins Williams Photography; ASM Ireland; SKYTEC UAS Ireland; Cyberhawk Innovations; Baseline Survey; Precise Construction Instruments; National University of Ireland, Maynooth and Coastway.
The British Army is currently using the Norwegian-made Black Hornet nanodrone in Afghanistan: it's 4.7in long, has a 20-minute flight endurance and carries three cameras.