‘Geospatial science underpins almost every aspect of our everyday lives’

7 Oct 2020

Image: Prof Tim McCarthy

Prof Tim McCarthy of Maynooth University is taking geospatial science to another level – in this case, drones and satellites.

After completing his BSc at University College Cork, Prof Tim McCarthy moved to London where he completed an MSc in earth observation at University College London and a PhD at London University, Birkbeck.

He then went on to work in industry in the areas of earth observation, aerial surveys and mobile mapping systems, before joining the National Centre for Geocomputation at Maynooth University in 2005. He is currently a principal investigator or co-principal investigator on six projects, including U-Flyte.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

From an early age I really enjoyed solving problems and developing solutions. I wanted to be a pilot, but those plans got shelved in order to complete university.

I subsequently learned to fly once I graduated, which seemed to cure my flying bug! My love of flying played a role in one of my earliest projects: a fully functioning aerial video mapping system. I even put it to use in the real world when flying a pipeline for BP Exploration – from Yopal in central Colombia to Cartagena on the Pacific coast.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Currently I’m working on airspace systems, also known as unmanned traffic management systems, for drones. Such systems, which are fundamentally geospatial in nature, need to take input and feedback from a wide range of stakeholders including regulators, drone operators, city managers and the wider society.

It is our hope that this information will benefit society and will impact areas such as fairness and transparency in terms of how the airspace over our homes and communities is used, as well as having due regard to minimising privacy and nuisance impacts.

Other areas we’re working on include agriculture and forestry mapping using spaceborne satellites, HD mapping for autonomous vehicles and autonomous drone inspection systems for the critical infrastructure industry.

Within the current climate, we are also working on a Science Foundation Ireland-funded project linked to Covid-19 research. Through this we are using information from satellites, drones and other sources to derive activity metrics to assist local authorities in managing outdoor spaces in terms of accessibility, activities and capacity in public spaces.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

We act as the link – albeit a small one – between the activity of applied research and the actual roll-out of various day-to-day services. Our role is also vital in training the next generation of scientists who pass through the doors of Maynooth University. Our research feeds into the day-to-day teaching in the university and helps both undergraduate and postgraduate students to see the everyday implications of their studies.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

I think in the coming years there is the possibility of developing scalable drone airspace management systems and automated, real-time robotic mapping and inspection systems. These could even be controlled by non-specialists.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Securing funding is always a challenge for every researcher. Having access to long-term reliable funding allows us to focus on the research challenge and finding a solution, rather than worry about short-term funding cycles.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Since drones are now readily available on the high street, there have been some concerns surrounding the privacy and security of those in close proximity to the machines. As part of our research, we always ensure that we carry out both a risk assessment and data protection impact assessment in advance.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Geospatial science underpins almost every aspect of our everyday lives, from food production to transportation, and even emergency management.

Future research could focus on large-scale, highly automated, adaptable cloud-based geospatial decision support platforms. These would be capable of ingesting data from multiple sources including drones and sensor networks. Such information could then be used to tackle big issues such as greenhouse gas emissions and national carbon inventories.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.