Sky the limit for drone firm

A Donegal start-up is about to launch its search and rescue software for drones, writes Trish Dromey

For the world’s first company to develop software which can turn a commercial drone into a search and rescue platform, the sky is the limit in terms of opportunities.

Set up just one year ago, DroneSAR in Donegal is preparing for a launch this month of an app which company co-founder and CEO Oisin McGrath believes will revolutionise the global search and rescue industry.

“An average search and rescue team member can walk 1,000 metres in 10 minutes – in this time a drone using our software can search 200,000 sq metres It reduces search time and risk to personnel. It can save lives,’’ he says.

Although drones have been used for over a year by search and rescue operations around the world, Mr McGrath says DroneSAR is the first to develop technology which can maximise efficiency by automating the search patterns and sharing locations, information and images.

“For an individual operating a drone in a search and rescue operation there are a number of difficulties — not being able to share the location of a missing person when they find one and not being able to ensure that areas are fully searched,” he says.

The first to identify a need for technology to solve these problems was Leo Murray, lead co-ordinator of Donegal Mountain Rescue who enlisted app designer and mountain rescue team member Matthew Kelly to help him design an early version.

Working on the solution they were joined by Mr McGrath and Gearoid O’Briain, military flight instructors who had co-founded a company to train drone pilots.

The group of four had experience of search and rescue on land and in the air.

“We each possess expertise and skill sets that are specific to the world of drone technology, network and satellite communication and search and rescue coordination and emergency response,” says Mr McGrath.

Developing the software in their spare time, they established DroneSAR at Letterkenny Institute of Technology in early 2016 and successfully applied to Enterprise Ireland for €50,000 in Competitive Start Funding.

During 2016, DroneSAR struck an agreement with Chinese company DJI, the world’s largest drone makers, based on its software on drone research which had been carried out carried out by DJI and European Emergency Number Association.

“In November 2016 we showcased our prototype at Drones Data X Conference. The following day we got enquiries from search and rescue organisations from all around the world,’’ says Mr McGrath.

The next step was to ensure DroneSAR’s place in the market by getting search and rescue software companies – Decisions for Heroes, SafeTrx and Viewranger – to agree to integrate DroneSAR app into their products. Earlier this year, DroneSAR secured an additional €50,000 in funding from the European Space Agency and Enterprise Ireland for the project.

Preparing for a launch in mid-July, the company is now testing its software with search and rescue organisations in Ireland, Iceland, Norway and the US.

“Our plan is to launch 100 early versions at a reduced rate. The basic app with limited functions, designed for use by an individual, will cost €250 a year while the professional version, designed for use in a team environment, costs €1,200 a year,’’ he says.

Aiming to sell at least 700 basic apps and 200 professional applications this year, Mr McGrath says DroneSAR has already received enquiries from 600 search and rescue organisations around the world.

Currently employing one full-time staff, DroneSAR has now started a fundraising campaign with a view to raising €250,000 to help the launch and to take on sales and marketing and customer support staff.

Planning to relocate the company to MaynoothWorks Incubation Centre this month, Mr McGrath expects to employ two more people this year.

Observing the take off of the commercial drone industry, which PWC has predicted will be worth $127bn (€111bn) by 2020, Mr McGrath believes the potential for DroneSAR’s technology is vast.

“Our long-term aim is to be the go-to company in the world for search and rescue software for drones,” he says. Within the next three years, he plans to grow the staff size to 11 and to generate multi-million euro sales.

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