Science-fiction technologies are really coming to life down in Limerick

31 May 2018

This integrated circuit – produced for ESA by Limerick’s Arralis – is the centrepiece of a powerful 94GHz radar system, offering a resolution nearly 10 times sharper than the landing radar used by the Apollo missions to the moon. Image: Arralis

Whether it’s the development of spacetech or crucial research into autonomous car development, Limerick has a sci-tech scene with a science-fiction focus.

If Dublin and the east coast of Ireland have been established as the centre for the biggest tech leaders right now – such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft – then the mid-west is the epicentre of companies and researchers developing technologies that could determine the future.

You only have to take a look at what is going on in the region in the past year to see that things are really brewing from a research and industry-academia perspective, in technologies ranging from artificial intelligence (AI) to robotics.

For example, earlier this month we saw Science Foundation Ireland open its latest Confirm centre focused on the development of smart manufacturing. This includes optimising industry with added intelligence and enhanced information technology to shorten supply chains and speed up development of new innovations across the board.

There was also the announcement from Edwards Lifesciences proclaiming that it wanted to turn the mid-west into a life sciences hub through the manufacture of delivery components for its transcatheter heart valve therapies.

Sky definitely not the limit

But perhaps some of the most fascinating areas where Limerick is excelling is in spacetech and autonomous car development, the former being no surprise given its existing strong links with aerospace technology that is capable of taking to the skies and further beyond the atmosphere.

While no doubt a star in terms of how it operates a business, one of the most accomplished start-ups in Limerick is Arralis, a radar and communications company that has seen its technology integrated into spacecraft in the seven years it has been running.

Based at the University of Limerick (UL) campus, the company has signed a number of deals with the European Space Agency. One such deal last year brought its Leonis Ka band chips into space, allowing for massive data rate communications speeds for commercial and science missions.

Speaking with, Arralis COO Eamonn Boland believes that now more than ever, the links it has with academia in UL will play a crucial role in furthering its end goals.

“You could say when we formed, we were almost too ahead of time and that our particular needs [in looking for research staff] were very niche, but I think that’s changing in terms of the courses they’re offering and there’s a bit more scope for the future there,” he said.

He added that himself, Barry Lunn (company co-founder and chief executive) and a number of engineers have come directly from UL to Arralis, with more likely to join the fold in the future.

Boland went on to say that as a whole, the Limerick sci-tech scene is “extremely strong”, citing the Limerick Institute of Technology and its accompanying Hartnett Enterprise Acceleration Centre as creating an innovation culture, leading to the development of new companies as a result.

“There’s some really interesting companies popping up in the past few years, and the amazing thing I see about the newer ones is just the diversity in terms of industries that they’re working in, be it medtech, industrial, exports and ourselves.”

Gaining momentum

But the Arralis team isn’t just focused on developing technology in space. It is also looking at the development of the technology that many people crave and fear in equal measure: autonomous cars.

Last year, the company raised €50m from a group of Asian private equity partners that will now see it develop the radar technology necessary for these cars to safely navigate our roads without putting lives at risk.

This has been part of Limerick and the mid-west’s transformation into an unexpected centre of autonomous car development, now being ‘driven’ by the arrival of Jaguar Land Rover and General Motors in the past two years.

According to Brian Conroy, IDA Ireland’s lead for its engineering and industrial technologies division, the region’s autonomous car development has been developing here even before these two companies arrived, though they are helping to push it on further.

“It is they, along with existing companies such as Analog Devices and others, which are driving the emerging cluster in connected and autonomous,” he said.

Speaking of collaboration between academia and industry in the region, in the area of autonomous vehicle technology, Conroy added: “The companies and research centres in Limerick are very much working nationally and internationally on the development of connected and autonomous technology.

“Whilst this is a fast-growing sector, it is still emerging, hence the need for organisations to work together to develop new solutions.”

‘The technology is moving fast’

Two researchers in the region who are set to push forward much of the technology behind autonomous vehicles are Dr Martin Mullins and Dr Finbarr Murphy of UL, who have received millions of euro in funding from the EU as part of the Horizon 2020 programme.

Speaking with, Mullins said that from his base at UL, he and Murphy are facing a fascinating but complex challenge to research such a new concept.

“The technology is moving fast but there remains substantial issues to overcome. Here, as elsewhere in the area of emerging technology, the science is moving faster than our ability to regulate and indeed understand some of the ethical issues at play.

“Our work is addressing the governance issues and those relating to risk transfer.”

We will no doubt be waiting to see what else Limerick has in store for us in the years to come.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic