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Achill Island, where the conference's networking events take place. IrishFireside/Flickr
Up and Away

This conference is trying to turn the west into a hub for drones

And it involves Achill Island and kitesurfing.

WHEN AMAZON FIRST unveiled its demo of a drone delivery service, the hype surrounding them was at an all-time high.

That buzz has died down, but what it and others initiatives have shown is it’s an industry that’s quietly growing in popularity with both businesses and regular people.

So it’s probably no surprise that of the many conferences that are held here, there would be one dedicated to that very subject.

It’s something that Phil McNamara decided to organise last year and is now preparing to hold its second Drones Data X conference in Westport. It takes place straight after the Web Summit on 6 November, and it expects to accommodate 450 to 500 people, a jump from the 150 people who attended last year.

The Web Summit’s move to Lisbon next year is a hit for it, but its organiser, Phil McNamara, originally from Galway but based in the US with VoxPro, is confident that it has enough to keep people coming back after this year.

“It’s going to make it harder for us as we do benefit from the huge amount of people who came over for that”, says McNamara. ”But at the same time, we’re standing on our own two feet, and attract people on our own merit. So we’re hopeful it will be bigger and stronger next year”.

The attraction is the fact that it’s more a gathering than a conference. While there are talks and discussions about the industry, the real draw is the location itself.

Part of its draw is going to Achill Island where the likes of kitesurfing, hiking and other activities happen after the talks. The idea is it allows people to get to know each other in different surroundings, and it’s something that McNamara feels would encourage people to come back to future events.

It’s a much better way to get to know people [and] it’s also a big leveler. Some of these people, they’re very famous in their own field, but you take them out of that and put them on a surfboard, and see them falling off just like you… [to see that they're the same as you] that’s what makes it nice.

But there’s still an underlining interest in how the industry is going to pan out, and how quickly it’s growing. In Ireland alone, there are 75 companies that have a licence for flying drones and the rural landscape presents opportunities for testing and development that wouldn’t be possible if you’re closer to more urban areas.

It also brings its own opportunities with McNamara saying people are more willing to come here to talk about drones than other subjects because of the excitement around it.

“It’s a really good way of attracting people into the country”, he says. “If I say ‘we want you to talk about drones’, then people are more willing to get into that because it’s an exciting area.”

There are a lot more companies getting into drones and the whole scene in Ireland is really picking up… Ireland has a massive opportunity to present itself as the best place to start a drone company, to do drone testing, and develop drone software.

Philip McNamara photo The organiser of Drones Data X, Phil McNamara.

One of the speakers at the event is Romeo Durscher, the director of education at DJI, who likens the development of drone technology to the moon landings, not because of what happened but how they got to that point.

“I always compare it to the 1960s where JFK said… we’ll walk on the moon”, says Durscher. “What’s more amazing is all the things that got invented along that process that we still use today”.

Yet what could hinder its development is public perception. When they’re toys, then it’s not as bad, but as they become more prevalent, and regulations are drafted up, the idea of such machines whizzing around in any form will gradually happen, but become concerning.

That, Druscher believes, will be solved by showing the different applications and as people become more aware of them.

If we can educate and set social norms, these kind of things will disappear and we won’t have as many negative stories, but we can emphasise the positive aspects like saving animals or bringing lifesaving equipment quicker to areas where they’re needed and that will show what the technology can do for us in the future.

This month, as part of’s ongoing startup and small and medium enterprise (SME) focus, we are looking at innovation in rural Ireland.

To read previous stories from our collection click here.

Read: You need a driver’s licence to use these weird-looking scooters >

Read: Revealed: The emails that show why the Web Summit left Dublin >

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