Published on 

Tánaiste and Minister for Defence Micheál Martin address at SFI– Defence Organisation Innovation Challenge Prize Event

Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel – 22 February 2023


Minister Harris, Secretary General, Chief of Staff, Science Foundation Ireland Director General, Professor Nolan, it gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to today’s event. 

First of all, I would like to thank the Air Corps for hosting us here in Baldonnel at what is a unique collaborative event, marking a journey which began here just twelve months ago.

Today is a day of celebration as we announce the winners of the SFI-Defence Organisation Innovation Challenge.

I want to congratulate all the teams who have participated in the challenge and acknowledge the contribution of the Defence Forces’ subject matter expert liaison officers, who played an enormous role in the teams with which they were embedded. 

In 2020, the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces published a Feasibility Study on establishing a research technology and innovation capability within the Defence Organisation. It would focus on technologies that have broad potential utilisation in both the civil and security &defence spheres, and on leveraging innovations from the civilian sector.

The Establishment of this RTI Unit is a very positive development.  It has provided the Defence Organisation with a capability that will enable greater engagement with academia and enterprise.  It will allow them to develop and exploit emerging and disruptive technology developments to support defence capabilities. 

It will also support wider access and market engagement for Irish research by academia and enterprise.

This Challenge was the first keynote project of the RTI Unit and is an excellent example of what can be achieved through collaboration and partnership between The Defence Organisation and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). 

It aimed to develop new technologies aligned with national defence policy that also have potential to deliver significant societal impact in Ireland.  I believe that the winning projects that you see here today, alongside the other innovative projects that have been developed through the challenge, will make those dual contributions to both Defence and to wider society.

The SFI-Defence Organisation Innovation Challenge is unique, in that all research teams from institutions across Ireland had the opportunity to work alongside members of the Defence Forces to develop solutions to real life challenges.

That collaborative approach has enormous potential and I look forward to seeing how it develops in the time to head.


And now to business... 

Today we are here to announce the prize-winners of this challenge.

The winning teams were required to successfully demonstrate, to an international academic review panel, significant progress towards the development of a STEM-based solution to the Challenge question. 

The two prize awards that we will be announcing today will enable the project teams to continue development and explore deployment of their solution.

One of the specific challenges identified by the Defence Forces was to ‘Enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the fire extinguishing capability of the rotary-wing aircraft’ operated by the Air Corps.

It is a timely challenge, with wildfires becoming an increasingly familiar story in our news media each year.

In Europe, between 2000-2017, around 1 million acres burned each year.  During this time, more than 600 firefighters and civilians lost their lives and the economic cost annually was estimated to be around €3 billion. 

And in Ireland, in April 2021, Killarney National Park suffered significant damage due to wildfires with almost 5000 acres burned.

In addition to the immediate impacts which can include loss of life, impacts to wildlife, damage to land, buildings and other infrastructure; wildfires also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, and air and water pollution.

So the effort to bring these under control is clearly an effort worthy of research, innovation and investment.

The winning project uses earth observation and Artificial Intelligence technologies to develop a new system capable of providing real-time information to responders in the air and on the ground to allow them significantly enhance their decision making and in turn improve the firefighting process. 

It gives me great pleasure, therefore, to announce that the winning team, who will receive the €1 million grant funding 1st prize, is...

Co-Pilot AI

This team is led by Professor Tim McCarthy, University of Maynooth and the Defence Forces subject matter Comdt. Jay O’Reilly.

Many congratulations to all involved in this project.

I hope that this prize will enable you to continue the development of your idea, to the benefit of citizens in areas affected by wildfires, to the benefit of these habitats and those who enjoy them, and to the benefit of our environment and climate.


It is my pleasure now to ask the Co-Pilot team to come up to receive the prize award.