Maynooth University receives EUR6 million to fund UTM research

Ireland’s Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development, John Halligan TD has announced funding from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) of EUR 1.8 million – with a further EUR 4.5 million investment from industry (cash and in-kind) to Dr Tim McCarthy, Maynooth University Department of Computer Science and National Centre for Geocomputation, for a new drone technology initiative known as U-Flyte. U-Flyte is an SFI Strategic Research Partnership award based at Maynooth University that involves collaboration with partners across the aviation industry, and includes input from Airbus, Irelandia Aviation, Intel and 15 other relevant companies and agencies with an active interest in the development and deployment of drone technology.

Speaking at the launch, Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development, John Halligan TD, said: “The U-Flyte programme will play a hugely important role in developing drone technology for use around the world, and it is using Waterford Airport as a test bed. This highlights Ireland’s ability to ‘punch above its weight’ when it comes to the research and development of science and technology, as well as how quickly ‘Ireland Inc.’ can bring together diverse industry stakeholders to drive progress.”

Commenting on the launch, the University’s Dr Tim McCarthy said: “This project will be using the latest navigation, optical, and radar sensors on-board our drones to gather data and feed it back through a system of connected secure networks to powerful computing platforms.”

Unless they have secured special permission, drone operators are limited to maintaining their drones within 300m circumference and in sight of the operator at all times, and at no more than 120m flying height above the ground. These guidelines, although necessary, restrict the wider development and uptake of drone applications and services – not only in Ireland but also across the globe.

The aim of U-Flyte is to tackle the current global log-jam impeding the wider development of drone operation and the roll-out of commercial services by providing the necessary research, data and case studies to guide agencies and industry in allowing drones to safely fly further and higher than the current limits.

The programme will see researchers recreate flying environments for drones as digital models, taking into account a wide range of factors like air traffic, buildings and electricity lines, and then testing them in the real world at Waterford Airport and other selected locations around Ireland.

Waterford Airport was chosen as the main testing location for U-Flyte because the facility possesses its own controlled airspace with a manned air-traffic control tower, providing U-Flyte researchers with a real-world, yet highly secure and safe flight test environment. The airport location also provides easy access to the coastline and offshore areas, allowing researchers to test higher performance drones for marine applications, such as ocean data collection and search and rescue.

Dr Tim McCarthy said: “U-Flyte is going to play a vital role in helping the development of drone applications, as well as give us essential data, which in turn, will contribute greatly to how we teach artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and data science at Maynooth. The input from our industry stakeholders means we will have access to real-life scenarios and challenges, ensuring more robust modelling and useful applications.”

Explaining why U-Flyte will be important to aviation giant Airbus, Project Manager at Airbus Defence and Space Chris Alexander said: “Airbus seeks to always be at the forefront of aerial research and technology, and for this reason, we are proud to collaborate with Maynooth University on the U-Flyte programme. We believe that the research undertaken by U-Flyte is going to contribute significantly to the development of drone usage not only in Ireland, but on a global scale.”

Commenting on how the research project will assist in planning for the changing needs of Irish air traffic control, Ralph James, Director of Safety Regulation at the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) said; “The IAA is keen to support development of drone technology for the greater public good in Ireland.  There are already over 8,500 drones on the IAA Irish drone register, and as we prepare ourselves for the future of aviation, which will see drones become a part of everyday life, initiatives like U-Flyte will be invaluable in helping us manage an evolving Irish airspace. We look forward to working with Tim McCarthy and his team on this ground-breaking research. Research initiatives which enable business and enhance safety are always welcome.”

Meanwhile, Brian Quinn, Intel’s Director of European Innovation predicted U-Flyte will aid Intel in its development of drone technology, saying: “Cyber Physical Systems (CPS) continue to play a much more fundamental role within our enterprises and our daily lives. Robotics, driver assisted cars and drones are real examples of this. The dependability and reliability of these systems is critical, with U-Flyte we can progress this important research agenda on drone mission systems through both hardware and software platforms.”

Irelandia Aviation, the low-cost airline developer behind Ryanair and other international budget airlines like Tiger Airways in Asia and Allegiant Air in the US, has also lent its support to U-Flyte.

(Pictured at the announcement was Margie McCarthy, Director of Innovation, Communications and Education, Science Foundation Ireland, Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development, John Halligan TD, Professor Philip Nolan, President, Maynooth University, and Dr Tim McCarthy, Maynooth University.)

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