Ireland, with its 3,171 km coastline, huge offshore area and small maritime service, may find it difficult to prevent the smuggling of illicit drugs and smuggling into the EU. Still, new autonomous drone technology, developed in Ireland, can make life much more difficult for smugglers.
The Armed Forces has teamed up with researchers to develop a new drone that can monitor the huge Irish offshore even when the weather is bad. The Guard Project, led by the Tyndall National Institute in Cork, has received € 7.6 million from the government’s Disruptive Technology Innovation Fund to build a world-leading autonomous drone to better target smugglers.
“Existing drones are expensive, difficult to use, unreliable and suffer heavy losses when working in severe weather conditions,” says Prof Holger Claussen, head of the wireless communication laboratory at Tyndall, which is leading Guard’s research effort.
The initiative could create 500 jobs in the future, he says, and position Ireland as a pioneer in autonomous drone technology.
Ireland is considered the easiest entrance to the EU for smugglers, with hundreds of remote coves and bays. Experts estimate that less than 10 percent of the smugglers and illegal drugs that enter here are stopped by the responsible authorities – the Armed Forces and the tax authorities – with the help of its ships and helicopters.
Ships at sea can be detected by transponders, but often close ships that do not want to be located by them. Ireland is part of an EU-funded Maritime Analysis and Operates Center (MAOC), which also consists of France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom, where resources are combined to identify suspected vessels and then send an aircraft. or ship out to investigate.
The Irish Naval Service simply does not have enough ships and helicopters to do the job, and even if it had many more ships, it probably still would not provide the flexible response to smugglers required. Drone technology is an obvious solution, but the drones currently on the market are unable to operate under the difficult conditions of the Irish offshore, require a high degree of manual operation and their communication systems are based on unreliable satellite links.
Researchers at the Guard believe that a new, high-tech Irish-made autonomous drone can do whatever it takes to stop the smugglers. Researchers at UCD and UL are also involved, as are three Irish SMEs: A-techSYN, a manufacturer of unmanned aerial vehicles (Shannon); VRAI, a virtual reality simulation provider (Dublin), and WAZP 3D, a 3D printing company (Tralee).
The Irish drone is about three meters long and has a wingspan of five meters. It can take off and land vertically – similar to the British Harrier jumper that was developed in the 1960s and taken out of service in 2003 – and when in the air it acts as a small aircraft. On board is a camera with a cardan that provides stability, as well as infrared and optical sensors – all of which are connected to software on the ground.
The drone will have AI on board to enable video analysis of the survey area, will have a range outside the line of sight of several hundred kilometers and improved communication connection which means less delays – latency – in signals back to the operator.
The plan is for the drone – which is currently undergoing flight tests – to take off and land from existing Irish warships when in operation. The innovative new craft is expected to provide more value for Ireland’s money against smuggling. “The new innovation will allow our defense forces to work smarter while protecting our coastline,” said Sean Clancy, Chief of Staff, Irish Defense Forces.
The treacherous conditions in the Irish offshore are considered to be the perfect test bed by scientists to test drones. The global market for autonomous drones is expected to grow to $ 45 billion by 2025, with many applications in fisheries, agriculture, energy, search and rescue, as well as military surveillance. It is hoped that Ireland and the companies involved will benefit.
“Guard will enable Irish SMEs to create this technology,” says Claussen. “They will show it together with the Irish Navy on drug bans, but the technology we are developing is really widely applicable to many cases of civilian use as well.”
“As a result, we expect the Irish companies to create many jobs in Ireland and make Ireland a leader in autonomous drones,” says Claussen.
The Irish Naval Service has to guard a huge offshore area and coastline with only nine ships, he says, and it is virtually impossible to prevent most illegal drugs from entering Ireland. “What we will do in this project is to create a completely autonomous drone that can operate in harsh weather conditions over a range of 800 km. It can automatically create flight plans, obtain permission to operate in civil airspace and it will be easy to interact with the data it creates. “
Tyndall researchers are building a new communication network for the drone, one based on millimeter wavelength frequencies. This will enable the drone to achieve very high data transfer rates and to integrate with multiple mobile networks simultaneously. This reduces the latency time and enables remote control of the drone.
Existing mobile networks aim to provide coverage on the ground, not in the air, so in the air – with drones in flight – the coverage can be uneven. This project develops ways to combine several cellular networks to fill the gaps and reduce latency (delays).
Work is also underway to develop new antenna technology and an optical lens – printed by the 3D printing company WAZP – that will enable the drone to operate in 5G and new extreme networks.
A major goal is to ensure that one or two people can use many of the new drones to reduce manual operating times and costs, and a digital representation of the Irish coast is created by VRAI to make life easier for operators.
Another challenge is to develop a method for safely launching and landing the drones on a mobile platform at sea. The researchers are also investigating how to enable the drone to be maneuvered outside an operator’s line of sight and to obtain automatic flight permits.
Focus at UCD, meanwhile, on creating algorithms to facilitate automatic analysis of drone image data. “For example, if the drone identifies a ship that does not appear on the radar, it will automatically calculate the flight path to examine it, control the camera and analyze the images taken,” says Claussen.
This will mean that the Naval Service can quickly assess drone data and determine which ships require further investigation of a ship. “With multiple drones, you can automatically monitor large areas,” says Claussen.
“Ireland’s weather conditions, as you can imagine, are very challenging, which is why it’s a really interesting place to do this type of innovation,” said Carlo Webster, senior strategic business development manager at Tyndall National Institute. “If it can work here, it can work in most places.
“The second point is that when you go over 1 million euros per drone, it becomes prohibitively expensive when they get lost at sea,” says Webster. “These drones cost around 400,000 euros, or maybe even 200,000 euros. It is more acceptable because when drones go down to sea, it is highly unlikely that they will be recycled.”
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