How Irish firms are winning the tech war

3 Apr 2008

Military and peacekeeping forces alike have technology requirements and many Irish firms are filling this niche

Working with military organisations has its disadvantages; not least because people often assume a firm is in the business of producing lethal systems like weapons or ammunition.

Commandant Gavin Young, press officer for the Irish Defence Forces, points out that it sources this technology from non-Irish companies, while lifesaving equipment such as its bomb-disposal robots come from west Cork-based Kentry, now called Allen-Vanguard Ireland, which has 45 employees.

“This is done through government tendering procedures and due to its extensive experience, we felt that this Irish-manufactured, bomb-detection equipment was by far the best we had seen,” says Young.

“The Irish and British are renowned for their skills in bomb disposal due to the history of terrorism in the North and as a result of this, bomb-disposal robots have been developed.”

Another Irish firm which supplies technology to the Irish Defence Forces, as well as military in the US, Australia, Germany, South Korea and Singapore, is Timoney Technologies. Its products go into military vehicles.

Timoney was founded in 1968 when Professor Seamus Timoney, a mechanical engineering lecturer at University College Dublin, developed a unique, independent suspension system for heavy vehicles which improves off-road speeds and handling over rough terrain.

From a tiny, cramped building behind a supermarket on Leeson Street, Timoney developed and built the original armoured personnel carrier for the Irish Army in 1975. Following this were further licence agreements and sales to the UK, South America and Africa.

While Timoney began by actually building its axel technology into heavy vehicles, its headquarters in Navan, Co Meath is now solely involved in R&D and technology transfer, outsourcing its manufacturing to South Korea and Poland.

Timoney CEO, Shane O’Neill (pictured), says one of the firm’s largest deals to date was a contract in 1999 to manufacture 350 infantry mobility vehicles known as the Bushmaster for the Australian Defence Forces.

Germany is a new market for Timoney. There, its technology will go into a family of mine-protected military vehicles designed to operate in explosive, hazardous conditions.

“Rheinmetall Landsysteme is one of two major German firms in this area and we have two programmes with them. The Germans are coming to us to get their automotive technology, which is quite an endorsement for us.”

Timoney currently derives about 50pc of its revenue from military-related business but O’Neill says it will see a reduction in this percentage over the next few years as it grows its existing commercial market in supplying axel technology to airport rescue and fire-fighting trucks, among others.

Soldiers may now do more driving than walking but Napoleon’s declaration that an army marches on its stomach is as true today as it was during the Napoleonic Wars, when canned food was invented to prevent malnutrition of 18th-Century French troops.

Today, however, modern technology has moved beyond canned meat and vegetables and onto the decidedly more complex technique of ensuring that food packaged in a modified atmosphere has not been contaminated or compromised in any way.

Dublin City University campus spin-out Gas Sensor Solutions (GSS) has a high-tech method of ensuring food

safety with SensiSpot, a sensor that R&D manager, Adrian Guckian, says has commercial and military applications.

“We make oxygen sensors that are non-invasive: either a printed label or printed dot that goes on the outside of say a sealed package. This can be scanned much like a barcode and it gives information about the atmosphere inside the sealed pack.

“Take a block of cheese: when you open the sealed pack, you are told that you have six or seven days to consume the

contents. This is because the atmosphere in the pack is modified until you open it. As the air outside is different, bacteria start to grow.
“If that seal is not perfect coming off the packaging line, then the best-before date is going to be completely redundant because oxygen can enter that compromised seal.”

This is where GSS’s technology comes in. Simply by spraying or placing a dot sensor, which is almost invisible and totally non-invasive, on the inside of packages, food producers can then test 100pc of the packages coming off production lines in real-time and see whether each food pack has been sealed safely.

The dot sensor, a world-first in non-invasive, oxygen-sensing equipment, can also be used to ensure vacuum-packed goods maintain their vacuum.

This SensiSpot can also be placed on the inside of a face mask for breath monitoring, which checks the wearer’s health in real-time.

Beyond monitoring food quality and health, there is also the safety of a civilian population to consider.

“If someone was to attack a country, one way to do it is to introduce poison into the food chain,” says Guckian

“If food is packed in a modified atmosphere or in a vacuum and our technology is there, nobody can tamper with the food without it being detected.”

GSS, which currently has seven employees, also lists prominent organisations including the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian and the National History Museum in London among its clients.

From armoured trucks to food, technology clearly has varied applications in military and defence forces and this extends to communications: an essential service for all organisations.

Whether military or otherwise, anyone operating in a remote environment or a situation where standard communications fail will need a fail-safe back-up.

Kerry-based Altobridge specialises in remote communications with its Local Connectivity Platform and while this is a mass-market service, CEO Mike Fitzgerald says the firm has just received its first military customer.

“We provide a cost-effective bridge between the satellite world and the cellular world. People on a plane, in a ship or in a military outfit which uses satellite systems can use their normal mobile phone.

“Most people on ships or planes or in the peacekeeping forces find it difficult to afford the standard satellite costs but our technology makes using a standard mobile phone in remote areas possible.”

Altobridge is involved with many European peacekeeping forces and has given talks to the UN on its remote communications technology.

So, while Ireland is neutral and therefore does not manufacture or export weapons systems, it does play a significant technological role in military, defence and peacekeeping forces around the world.

Although there are no exact figures on how much military-related goods and services are worth to the Irish export market, the value does extend well into the millions.

However, many technology firms are reluctant even to admit ‘dual use’ technology, ie technology with both commercial and military applications.

“Of course there are negative from prisons in the UK views on working with military,” says O’Neill of Timoney, “but we only work with countries which share our social values.”

Extending the reach of the long arm of the law

Have you ever wondered how the police keep track of criminals once they are released from prison?

Often, it is a time-consuming task requiring a lot of resources and manpower. However, Dublin firm Saadian is making life easier for British bobbies in 20 of the largest police forces in the UK by providing them with PINS.

PINS (Prisoner Intelligence Notification System) helps officers keep tabs on the prison population by informing them when prisoners in their jurisdiction are about to be released.

“There are 150,000 people released from prisons in the UK every year and they are distributed to various parts of the country,” says Cliodhna McGurk, CEO and founder of Saadian.

“What we do is provide a service to each local police force to let them know who is going to be released in their area and we highlight high-risk or prolific offenders.

“Tracking the existing prison population is important because there are often high levels of re-offence. So when the police force knows a prolific offender is coming out they can monitor them, which helps reduce the amount of crime occurring.”

Another area benefiting from PINS is the monitoring of dangerous offenders, ie those imprisoned for crimes of a violent or sexual nature.

If the police force know when these offenders are due for release, it will not be taken by surprise. This can help avoid a situation where the law is oblivious until such criminals have re-offended and the story hits the media.

At moment, Saadian is mainly working in the UK but is hoping to expand internationally and is currently looking at a number of markets.

By Marie Boran