Maynooth academics’ tech for fighting wildfires wins SFI challenge funding

22 Feb 2023

From left: Prof Tim McCarthy, Tánaiste and Minister for Defence Micheál Martin, Dr Stephanie Keogh, Minister Simon Harris, squadron commander Jay O'Reilly and Prof Philip Nolan. Image: Keith Arkins Media

Science Foundation Ireland’s challenge fund focusing on tech for assisting the Irish Defence Forces was first announced in July 2021.

A team of researchers from Maynooth University has won €1m funding to develop an idea for fighting wildfires using technology.

They are the overall winners of a challenge first announced by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) almost two years ago. SFI said in July 2021 that it was putting aside €2.4m in funding for teams of innovators to compete for.

Led by Prof Tim McCarthy, the CoPilot-AI team from Maynooth looked at the problem of wildfires. They used earth observation and AI machine learning tech to provide real-time information on wildfire emergencies to response teams.

CoPilot-AI was one of 10 teams that were selected in February 2022 to compete for the overall status of winner. The teams included members from University of Galway, Maynooth University and University College Dublin.

The teams of innovators were challenged by SFI and the Department of Defence to develop solutions for problems faced by the Irish Defence Forces.

The Department of Defence and the Irish Defence Forces had listed a number of different issues they wanted the participants of the challenge fund to address. They also expressed an interest in what kind of things participants would come up with themselves in terms of disruptive tech.

CoPilot-AI will receive €1m in funding to further develop its tech. According to McCarthy, the funding will go a long way in helping the team prepare emergency responders for wildfires becoming more common as a result of the climate crisis.

“The reality is that wildfire events are now likely to affect us all either directly or indirectly because of climate change.”

He added that the wider team behind the project was “an interdisciplinary team” –  including co-principal investigator, Prof John McDonald; research strand leader Dr Charles Markham and additional researchers drawn from the Department of Computer Science, the National Centre for Geocomputation in Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute.

These academics worked closely with an Irish aerial firefighting team and key stakeholders from the Fire Service, National Parks and Wildlife Service and Coillte.

“Over 18 months, we designed, built and tested an intuitive Common Operational Picture platform to improve how digital data from satellites, aircraft and drones sensors can be captured, pooled and shared in real time between various responder agencies,” said McCarthy.

A live exercise to demonstrate the winning project took place in the Dublin Mountains with more than 40 multi-agency personnel working together.

Other projects on the shortlist with CoPilot-AI included a system for manoeuvring aircraft between a hangar and apron, as well as a device to detect biological agents and a method of converting waste to low-carbon fuel.

The runner-up team was from University College Cork, and was led by Prof Holger Claussen. They will receive €500,000 of continued funding for their idea, which was developed in conjunction with a captain from the Communications and Information Services Corps and the Irish drone manufacturer A-techSYN.

They proposed a new system for using drones to relay radio signals, showing that a small number of high-flying drones could ensure safe communications for the Defence Forces operating in remote areas, including those on peacekeeping duties overseas.

Commenting on the announcement of the winners of the challenge, SFI director general Prof Philip Nolan and Tánaiste/Minister for Defence Micheál Martin both remarked that the challenge-based approach was effective in helping people working in the Defence Forces tackle real-world problems.

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Blathnaid O’Dea is Careers reporter at Silicon Republic