For years, drones were familiar only from works of fiction like ‘Dune’, and at one point they seemed like pure fantasy from the spinning minds of sci-fi novelists. Manna Drone Delivery’s CEO Bobby Healy has never been one to think inside the box, however, – and today, delivery drones are a commonplace sight across North Dublin; the future is already here, and it’s in Balbriggan.
Darragh Kirwan is one of the company’s tech-obsessed software engineers who works on the internal software tools that manage some of the drone operations and customer-facing products. He’s also a drone pilot with the Irish Civil Defence, and Trevor Murray caught up with him to discuss his role, what drew him to the tech sector, and why drones are really taking off.
Darragh has contributed to building the software that helps a drone plan its route to a destination – and even the controls that a pilot sees. Ultimately, he’s involved with all the software that isn’t on the drone, but his work greatly impacts how the drones work on a day-to-day basis.
The custom-built aerospace drones that Manna use are even more unique than your so-called standard drone, so I’m interested to hear where a software engineer like Darragh even starts when he builds the technology out.
“There’s not a lot to benchmark against – everything has to be done from scratch. Probably one of the more interesting things is that today – one pilot can control one drone, at least in Balbriggan where we’re flying, and also the pilot never really flies the drone, they’re more in a monitoring capacity. So, to scale, we need to figure out how we can have one pilot to, let’s say, 20 drones at the same time, flying,” Darragh explains.
These are problems, so to speak, that few other companies are really having – and it means that people like Darragh have to come up with solutions for them over time. It’s a whole new world up in the sky.
“The tech and regulations side of things seem to be coming together for us, so now we can work on just building it out,” Darragh adds.
Once of Altocloud, Darragh had always been interested in aeronautical engineering and tech, so when the opportunity to work with another start-up in Manna Drone Delivery came up, he jumped at the chance.
And Darragh believes that the start-up scene in Galway is something to behold – and he’s impressed with much the scene has expanded over the years, citing NUIG’s (now University of Galway) tech meetup ‘Exponentially’ as a great barometer for how things have progressed over the years.
“At the time, there was a good enough crowd there, but the whole community would fit inside a small room in a pub in Galway! You’d know every single start-up, and that was probably the same even when Altocloud was around – there were a lot of people in the PorterShed, in the colleges, Ex-Ordo were in Raven’s Terrace.
“But fairly quickly [things took off], I don’t know what happened, it was fairly coincident with PorterShed, and now there are loads of start-ups which is great,” Darragh explained.
It’s amazing to see such phenomenal innovation happening across the city and country – and Manna Drone Delivery are certainly leading the way in many regards.
Darragh gives me a fascinating insight into how they’re working and the way they are carrying out a lot of their testing – and just how crucial safety is in everything they do.
“They have a testing facility in Offaly, and they have it set up like a small town with fake Eircodes for different places, and they’ll fly drones 24/7.
“Because we build the drones ourselves, there’s a fairly rigorous testing process that has to be done. It’s not like building a manned aircraft, it’s a scaled-down version of that. You might have to do tens of thousands of hours of flying before you can say ‘this aircraft is safe to fly in someone’s neighbourhood.”
Darragh has the sort of curious mind that many start-ups love to have on their team – and he’s at the cutting edge of this particular industry. He tells me that he loves working with the kinds of companies that move fast, and make really forward-thinking moves.
Before he had even heard of Manna, Darragh was still in college and responded to a call from the Irish Civil Defence for drone pilots – and he has been with them for six years now. The drones use thermal-imaging cameras for search and rescue, and they are often required over bodies of water.
“Even if I didn’t know it at the time, that was kind of where it started. Like I say, I don’t think a company like Manna would have been possible at the time – the regulations weren’t really advanced at the time. It was perfect for what [the Civil Defence] needed, but probably not for delivering packages.”
Indeed, the technology has really taken off in recent years through a combination of open regulations and because of people like Darragh. Of course, it’s tempting to think on what the future will deliver through companies like Manna that are continuing to push the boundaries, but for now, it’s enough to appreciate what they are already doing.
By Trevor Murray