Western Irish islands making waves on screen and in science

25 Jan 2023

Prof Frédéric Dias. Image: UCD

As The Banshees of Inisherin sweeps the Oscar nominations, UCD’s Caroline Byrne highlights a more scientific accolade for Ireland’s Atlantic coast.

While the west of Ireland is no stranger to the page, stage or screen, it’s fair to say that, at this moment in time, the international spotlight is blazing with new intensity on its windswept Atlantic islands.

The Banshees of Inisherin – which was filmed on Inis Mór and Achill Island – has piqued audiences and roused enthusiastic examination in arts and entertainment and even news media.

Yesterday (24 January), it set a new record for Oscar nominations received by an Irish film to add to its already crowded store from BAFTA and the Golden Globes.

Writer and director Martin McDonagh has recaptured the world’s fascination with this unique corner of Ireland, which has inspired popular representations from the darkly romantic to the mythological since the 19th Century.

As the artist’s lens turns the audience’s interested gaze once again on the remote Irish west, it begs inevitable questions about whose stories we choose to tell, how we choose to tell them, and why the world accordingly takes notice.

To far less fanfare, the European Research Council (ERC) announced a much less glamorous but equally prestigious award for an oeuvre that also owes its existence to the rocky Atlantic islands off Galway’s coast. Based on the Aran Islands, the €2.5m Highwave project applies fluid dynamics to study the physical mechanisms underlying destructive breaking waves on the ocean’s surface and develop accurate wave models.

Such models could help improve criteria for the design of ships and coastal and offshore infrastructures, help to quantify seabed erosion, and help to quantify air-sea CO2 transfer, which is key to predicting future climate.

Frédéric Dias, a professor at University College Dublin and ENS Paris-Saclay, along with his team have operated their research station on Inis Meáin since early 2019, capturing never-before-seen real-time data on breaking ocean waves and maritime climate conditions that has far-reaching potential for impact in multiple sectors including maritime communications.

Now, the ERC has announced a further €150,000 funding in a Proof of Concept grant to develop the project’s novel maritime wireless technology.

Why place really matters

In addition to accessing the unique and dramatic environment, the project has also had the rare advantage of embedding in the local island community, one of Ireland’s remotest and geographically and culturally unique – usually at a far remove from the highest levels national and European research investment – with rich benefits for both.

The team and local community embraced their new relationship from the off and have engaged in an exchange of knowledge and support that too rarely enriches the operations of expensive research projects. Highwave engineer Arnaud Disant even took the decision to relocate close to the islands in order to sustain the link between them.

“A large part of Highwave involves fieldwork and relies on the support of the communities of the Aran Islands and Connemara bases for its success,” said Dias.

“The project has a positive impact in that local knowledge on the sea can be shared and combined with scientific information. Then we can give back, by sharing our data with local organisations and even schools.”

West of Ireland native Oisin MacConamhna added the wave environment of Ireland’s west coast is globally exceptional. “It’s wonderful to see a research station devoted to its deeper understanding so thoroughly embedded in and supported so enthusiastically by the local community,” he said.

“The observational testimony of western communities of their lived experience of extreme winter storms has sometimes been met with incredulous scepticism in parts of the scientific literature, a standpoint to which the entire ethos of the station is diametrically opposed.

“The scientific team understand very clearly the great value of local knowledge and community support to their research, and in return, have contributed significantly to the scientific culture of the Aran Islands, not just by establishing a research station of global significance there, but also for example by supporting Inis Meáin’s secondary school students to great success in the Young Scientist competition, or by helping to recruit a mathematics teacher for the school. This is above and beyond the economic benefits brought by a steady stream of scientific visitors attracted by the station to the island.”

Pupils from Coláiste Naomh Eoin on Inis Meáin won prizes for their Highwave-related projects in the chemical, physical and mathematical sciences category of the annual BT Young Scientist competition for the last two years in a row.

In addition to sharing vital maritime knowledge, the local community has helped the project with practical support. Local fishermen, for instance, have provided transport by boat to Dias and his team. “They have helped us in so many ways. They gave us access to the airport for drone deployment, when there is a storm and we’re not on the island, they collect our equipment and keep it safe,” said Dias.

In return, Highwave willingly supports local initiatives such as the Aran Islands Energy Co-op (Comharchumann Fuinnimh Oileáin Árann). The co-op’s project assistant, Stephanie Brennan, said Dias has been “very generous in sharing his research data”, which has enabled the co-op to have up-to-date information for our wind turbine feasibility study.

“He is approachable and has taken the time to explain how data for his project is gathered, giving us the answers we need for another project in which we are involved. The fact that he sometimes communicates in Irish is a further indication of his dedication to place as well as project!”

A unique story

Highwave is genuinely making waves in the field of ocean wave measurement, both in its public impact and in scientific terms. “We discovered a critical gap in all current approaches to ocean wave measurements and maritime communications,” said Dias.

“There is no existing technology that provides air and water information of any given sea state in real time. The lack of any technique providing instant access to a sea state makes it extremely difficult to adapt to a changing sea state and to act fast.”

With the new ERC grant, the team will fill this gap with ‘Real Time Sea’, using wireless wave sensor technology deployed on a connected buoy to measure and instantaneously transmit raw data of the sea state (air and water) at a given location, at a very low communication cost.

“Considering that our idea can be extended to a linked network of connected buoys, thus adding a spatial component to the real-time measurements, one can say that the ability to track sea states in real time and space will represent a revolution in wave forecasting, with expected commercial applications for multiple end users.”

Taking the real-time measurement of waves to proof of concept is made possible because of the recent development of maritime wireless networks, that enables Wi-Fi data coverage over large areas of water within a 12km radius from a shore station.

A 12-month campaign off Inis Meáin will allow the optimisation of the measurement system, and the development of the required software and buoy/mobile station kit.

Dias and his team plan to showcase their novel wireless technology with an attempt to break the current world record in ship-to-shore distance for a maritime broadband transmission this spring – broadcasting over YouTube Live from a local boat. An apt dénouement for a west of Ireland story in 2023!

By Caroline Byrne

Caroline Byrne is the communications manager at University College Dublin.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.