When Lero director professor Mike Hinchey overheard his mother talking on the phone, it sparked the beginnings of an idea that could, in theory, help further space travel one day.
Eighty-two year old Delia Hinchey was describing a project her son was working on. It was, she told her friend, a project where a drone or spacecraft could chase after a faulty one to fix it.
The Lero director had worked with Nasa for 10 years before returning to Ireland in 2008. Since then, he has worked as a consultant with the agency, travelling to Washington DC on several occasions. His mother had always taken an interest in his work.
While the project she described sounded very advanced, it wasn't quite what he was working on with Nasa, Prof Hinchey admitted.
“But she didn’t completely misunderstand,” he said. He was working with colleagues on a system where multiple craft – drones, larger craft or even robots – could be deployed in swarms on missions. If one of them developed a fault, it could switch itself off, leaving the remaining drones to carry on with the mission.
For example, if one drone tasked with taking pictures developed a fault, it could be used to do something else on the mission.
The logic behind the approach is simple: smaller craft are cheaper, and even if a mission loses several out of a swarm of hundreds, it can still proceed to a successful conclusion.
Although his mother had confused some of the details, it sparked an idea with Prof Hinchey. “I sat down and thought about it, and came up with a way that, if the craft was damaged, it could give over its power source to others.”
The idea is compared to the way bees will sacrifice themselves for the colony. The damaged drones attach to other craft and give their battery source to the remaining swarm members.
“Refuelling of aircraft in the air is commonplace in military applications, but is limited to fuel rather than recharging and involves a specialised component carrying fuel solely for this purpose,” he said. “Our patent however, relates to parts of an autonomic system, which donate a power provision such as battery, fuel, solar panel, or the like to another component to ensure the continued operation of the receiving module, even at the cost of self-sacrifice.”
The patent could also cover the donation of other parts as technology evolves.
Because she inspired the idea, Mrs Hinchey is now listed as a co-author on the patent, along with her son and his co-researchers Lero's Emil Vassev and artificial intelligence expert Roy Sterrit.
“I don’t think she really believed it, that it really sank in, until the patent plaque arrived,” he said. “We’d been waiting for around a year.”
Although there won’t be any financial benefit in the immediate future, there could be if Nasa licenses the technology to others.
“It’s all a bit beyond me but I’m delighted I sparked something which might be of value to space exploration in the future,” Mrs Hinchey said.