University College Dublin (UCD) has jointly received €5.1 million in Government funding to help develop security drones for the Irish Navy. 

Project DTIF GUARD is a collaboration between a number of contractors and institutions, with the stated goal of developing surveillance technology to track drug smuggling operations. These institutions include the University of Limerick, Tyndall National Institute, and a number of private companies. 

UCD’s responsibility in Project Guard is the development of AI algorithms that would allow the drones to automatically detect the name, type, and nationality of the ships under surveillance. 

The security capability provided, as well as the funding injected into the Irish drone industry, “will establish Ireland as a world leader in autonomous drone and drone-AI technologies”, according to the Department of Enterprise, Trade, and Employment. It is predicted that the project will create approximately 500 new jobs. 

The unmanned and unarmed drones will help tighten the defence of Ireland’s coastline, which the project’s website calls “the softest target in the EU for smugglers”, where “only less than 10% are caught”. While the focus is on unarmed surveillance of drug operations, the project’s website also claims that the drone system’s “technology is broadly applicable to many other applications”. 

Drones are argued to be a safer and more cost-effective means of expanding Ireland’s security capabilities as opposed to more conventional technologies, such as warships or helicopters. 

The UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) will surveille Ireland’s coastline and identify smuggling vessels using artificial intelligence. It is unclear how many drones the Navy plans on using, and by when the project is expected to be completed. 

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The construction of the drones themselves is the responsibility of A-techSYN, an Irish UAV manufacturer formerly based in Turkey. When first launched in Ireland, the company advertised an interest in using drone technology for civilian purposes, such as delivery services to remote parts of the country. 

While the company does not advertise exactly who they provide technology to, it does appear that they have transitioned into producing for the defence industry. Test flights of their technology have been attended by representatives of the Turkish embassy, TDs, and Irish civil organisations.  At a recent security conference in London, CEO Gokhan Celik advertised that the company’s “products are already being used by defence, law enforcement, intelligence and civil customers on a daily basis”. One of their most successful products, the CGT50 “Çağatay”, has a number of military applications. One report from an industry event in Turkey described the uses as including “day/night intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, target detection and tracking, fire control/forward surveillance and damage assessment…and airborne security of convoys”. 

They also are in the process of expanding their operations globally, with planned maintenance, repair, and operations presence in the US, UK, EU, Africa, and South America. 

The funding for Project Guard comes from the Irish Government’s “Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund”. In the same funding round, UCD also received support for 

UCD’s involvement in the project is the continuation of what appears to be an increased interest in defence technologies. The University was a major sponsor of the inaugural “National Security Summit Ireland”, a defence industry event that took place in February of 2020. Their support was alongside that of the Irish Defence Forces, An Garda Síochána, as well as the British and American governments. A-techSYN was also a sponsor of the event, which took place just over a year before Project DTIF GUARD was announced. 

Project GUARD has not been UCD’s only push into the unmanned aerial vehicle market. Manna, a civilian-sector UAV company, is based in the University’s startup incubator NovaUCD. Their drones “perform high-speed deliveries of takeaway food, groceries, and pharmacy goods/supplies”, and have been undergoing consumer trials in Oranmore, Co. Galway. In February 2020, it was announced that a pilot programme of the drone delivery service would be available to UCD students in the near future, however, this has not yet developed. 

Jack McGee – Head of Investigations