10 teams shortlisted for SFI challenge to develop tech for Defence Forces

17 Feb 2022

From left: Prof John MacDonald, Dr Stephanie Keogh and Prof Tim McCarthy from Maynooth University, Minister Simon Harris, Prof Philip Nolan of SFI, Minister Simon Coveney, and squadron commander Jay O'Reilly of the Defence Forces. Image: Jason Clarke

Teams from NUI Galway, Maynooth University, UCD and more will compete as part of a new research challenge from SFI and the Department of Defence.

10 research teams from multiple Irish universities and institutions have been shortlisted to develop solutions to key challenges for use across the Irish Defence Forces.

The teams are competing in the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Defence Organisation Innovation Challenge, launched last July to develop disruptive innovations to a number of challenges identified by the Department of Defence.

The ideas include a portable device that detects biological agents, AI technology to help the Irish Air Corps fight wildfires, a novel prototype marine electric motor to reduce the environmental impact of vessels, and a cooperative system that will allow a human controller and robot to work together to manoeuvre aircraft.

A total of €2.4m in funding was announced for the initiative today (17 February) by Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris, TD, and Minister for Defence Simon Coveney, TD.

‘There is a myriad of innovative ideas and expertise from machine learning and virtual reality to data analytics, engineering and robotics’

The 10 teams have received funding to initiate their shortlisted projects. They will undergo a progress review after three months, when five of the teams will proceed with an additional €200,000 in funding to validate and prototype their projects. These finalists will then compete for the overall prize award of €1m.

“The innovation on display can help address existing and future challenges within our Defence Forces,” Harris said. “There is a myriad of innovative ideas and expertise from machine learning and virtual reality to data analytics, engineering and robotics.”

The teams are drawn from various disciplines including computer science, mechanical engineering and natural sciences. The projects are focusing on five challenges that were identified by the Department of Defence.

These challenges include: enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of the fire extinguishing capability of rotary-wing aircraft; the recovery of rigid hull inflatable boats at sea; prevention and detection of water ingress to vessels; the creation of a cyber-physical system to assist or automate the manoeuvring of aircraft between a hangar and apron; and reducing the environmental impact of the Defence Forces.

“At EU level, the role of innovation and disruptive technologies in delivering next-generation military capability is already well recognised,” Coveney said. “I am looking forward to seeing the results that this synergy of innovators and practitioners under this challenge will undoubtedly generate for the Defence Forces going forward.”

Challenged-based funding is a key focus for SFI, with programmes such as the Future Innovator Prize.

SFI director general Prof Philip Nolan said having this level of talent compete in the challenge “not only bodes well for this particular initiative but the future of scientific research more generally”.

“I look forward to seeing the different solutions that develop as the competition continues,” he added.

Further information on the challenge and the teams that have been shortlisted in the concept phase can be found here.

NUI Galway 

Two of the shortlisted projects came from researchers at NUI Galway.

The first, AltFuel4DF, will focus on converting waste to low-carbon fuel. This is a joint project with the Institute of Technology Carlow.

The other project, SafeGuard-Bio, will look at a novel device to detect multiple biological agents. The researchers behind it believe there is potential beyond the security field, including aspects of public health and environmental monitoring for better awareness of infectious agents.

Vice-president of research and innovation at NUI Galway, Prof Jim Livesey, said: “The successful projects in the SFI Defence Organisation Challenge have huge potential and are a mark of the value our researchers place on responding to society’s needs.

“Collaboration is a vital element of research and as a public university it is profoundly important for our excellence to be put to the test in developing solutions for those who serve on the front line while also creating the potential for societal impact.”

Maynooth University

Another two of the projects have come from researchers at Maynooth University.

The first, CoPilot-AI, will look at addressing the problem of wildfires. Using earth observation and AI technologies, this new system aims to provide real-time information to responders in the air and on the ground.

The second project, Smart Hangar, will focus on a cyber-physical system to assist in or automate the manoeuvring of aircraft between a hangar and apron.

“The selection of two projects for the SFI Defence Organisation Innovation Challenge is evidence of the excellence underpinning our research at Maynooth,” Maynooth University president Prof Eeva Leinonen said.

“These projects are being developed for a specific challenge, however their potential application across broader industry and society is clear. I wish our research teams every success.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic