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Irish drone set to make life harder for drug smugglers

The Defence Forces have teamed up with scientists to develop a new drone capable of policing the huge Irish offshore area

Ireland, with its coastline of 3,171km, a huge offshore area and small Naval Service, can find it difficult to prevent the smuggling of illegal drugs and contraband into the EU. Yet new autonomous drone technology, developed in Ireland, can make life much harder for smugglers.

The Defence Forces have teamed up with scientists to develop a new drone capable of policing the huge Irish offshore even when the weather is dire. The Guard Project, led by 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 the smugglers.

“Existing drones are expensive, difficult to operate, unreliable and suffer high losses when operating in difficult weather conditions,” says Prof Holger Claussen, head of the wireless communications laboratory at Tyndall, who is leading the Guard research effort.

The initiative could create 500 jobs in the future, he says, and position Ireland as a front-runner in autonomous drone technology.


Ireland is considered the easiest entry point into the EU for smugglers, with hundreds of remote bays and inlets. The experts estimate that less than 10 per cent of contraband and illegal drugs coming in here are stopped by the authorities responsible – the Defence Forces and the Revenue Service – using its ships and helicopters.

Ships at sea can be detected by transponders, but often ships that do not want to be located turn them off. Ireland is part of an EU-funded Maritime Analysis and Operates Centre (MAOC), which is also made up of France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and the UK, where resources are combined to identify suspicious vessels, and to then send an aircraft or ship out to investigate.

The Irish Naval Service simply has not enough ships and helicopters to do the job, and even if it had far more ships arguably it still would not provide the flexible response to smugglers that is required. Drone technology is an obvious solution, but the drones currently on the market are not capable of operating in the harsh conditions of the Irish offshore, need a high degree of manual operation, and their communication systems are based on unreliable satellite links.

The researchers at Guard believe that a new, higher-tech Irish-made autonomous drone can, however, do what is required to stop the smugglers. Scientists at UCD and UL are also involved, as well as three Irish SMEs: A-techSYN, a producer of unmanned aerial vehicles (Shannon); VRAI, a provider of virtual reality simulation training (Dublin), and WAZP 3D, a 3D printing company (Tralee).

The Irish drone is some three metres long and has a five-metre wingspan. It can take off and land vertically – akin to the British Harrier jump jet developed in the 1960s and decommissioned in 2003 – and when airborne it operates like a small airplane. On board is a camera with a gimbal providing stability, as well as infrared and optical sensors – all of which are linked to software on the ground.

The drone will have AI on board to enable video analysis of the survey area, will have a beyond the line-of-sight operating range of several hundred kilometres and improved communications connectivity meaning less delays – latency – in signals back to the operator.

The plan is for the drone – currently undergoing flight tests – to launch and land from existing Irish naval vessels when operational. The innovative new craft is expected to provide more bang for Ireland’s anti-smuggling buck. “The new innovation will allow our Defence Forces to work smarter while protecting our coastline,” says Sean Clancy, chief-of-staff, Irish Defence Forces.

The treacherous conditions in the Irish offshore are considered the perfect test-bed by researchers for testing drones. The global market for autonomous drones is expected to grow to $45 billion by 2025, with many applications in the monitoring of fisheries, agriculture, energy, search-and-rescue, as well as military. The hope is that Ireland and companies involved are set to benefit.

“Guard will enable the Irish SMEs to create this technology,” says Claussen. “They will demonstrate it together with the Irish Navy for drug interdiction, but the technology that we develop is really broadly applicable to many civilian-use cases as well.”

“We expect that as a result the Irish companies will create a lot of jobs in Ireland and make Ireland a leader in autonomous drones,” says Claussen.

The Irish Naval Service must police a huge offshore area and coastline with just nine ships, he says, and it is virtually impossible to prevent most illegal drugs getting into Ireland. “What we will be doing in this project is creating a fully autonomous drone that can operate in harsh weather conditions across an 800km range. It can automatically create flight plans, obtain permission to operate in civilian airspace and it will be simple to interact with the data it creates.”

Tyndall researchers are building a new communication network for the drone, one based on millimetre wavelength frequencies. This will enable the drone to achieve very high data transfer rates, and to integrate with multiple cellular networks at the same time. This reduces latency time and allows for remote operation of the drone.

Existing cellular networks aim to provide coverage on the ground, not in the air, so in the air – with drones in flight – coverage can be patchy. This project is developing ways to combinate multiple cellular networks to fill the gaps and reduce latency (delays).

There is also work going on in developing new antenna technology and an optical lens – printed by 3D printing firm WAZP – which will enable the drone to operate in 5G and emerging extreme networks.

A big goal is to ensure that one or two people can operate a lot of the new drones to reduce manual operating times and costs, and a digital representation of the Irish coastline is being created by VRAI to make life easier for operators.

Another challenge is to develop a method to safely launch and land the drones on a moving platform at sea. The researchers are also investigating how to enable the drone to be operated beyond an operator’s line of sight and to get automatic flight permissions.

The focus at UCD, meanwhile, to creating algorithms to facilitate the automatic analysis of drone image data. “For example, if the drone identifies a ship that doesn’t show up on the radar it will automatically calculate the flight path to investigate that, steer the camera and analyse the images taken,” says Claussen.

This will mean the Naval Service can quickly assess drone data and decide what ships require further investigation by a vessel. “With multiple drones you can automatically survey large areas,” says Claussen.

“Ireland’s weather conditions, as you can imagine, are very challenging, and that is why it’s a really interesting place to do this type of innovation,” says Carlo Webster, senior strategic business development executive at Tyndall National Institute. “If it can work here it can work pretty much most places.

“The other point is that when you go over €1 million per drone it becomes prohibitively expensive when they get lost at sea,” says Webster. “These drones cost around €400,000, or maybe even €200,000. That’s more acceptable because when drones go down at sea it’s highly unlikely that they will be recovered.”