The Next Big Thing in Canada: Field Robots

Robotics poised to become country’s most important industry

Imagine if a robot could watch over Canada’s forests 24 hours a day, seven days a week without ever tiring; or alert us of forest fires as soon as they start and take quick action to extinguish them. Or, what if a robot could conduct an airborne search for survivors after disaster strikes, spotting people on the ground by their hand signals and dropping off critical emergency supplies?

These and other robotic innovations are not far from reality. They are currently in development on our home turf and are helping to strengthen Canada’s position on the world robotics stage, thanks to the efforts of a national network that brings together companies with academic researchers to develop leading-edge robotic technologies.

Called the NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network (NCFRN), the organization has funded the work of 180 researchers from coast to coast since its establishment in 2012, working with dozens of Canadian robotics companies and start-ups. In just four years, it has supported 100 different research projects – from 3D drone sensors and smart technologies for ride-sharing, to robots that assist in Mars exploration, as well as land and water robots that monitor Canada’s coastline and robots that will someday navigate Canada’s forests to protect wildlife and potentially assist in fighting forest fires.

The work of network participants is boosting Canada’s position in what is quickly becoming the world’s most important industry sector, according to Gregory Dudek, NCFRN Scientific Director and a Professor in McGill University’s School of Computer Science.

“Robotics is the future, not only of computer science but also of our everyday lives,” said Dudek, noting that even today’s smartphones and self-driving cars can be considered robots. “Most countries recognize this and are working to be a part of it, striving to develop robots that will help solve real-world challenges and positively impact our essential industries – from mining, shipping and agriculture, to emergency response and healthcare.”

Projected Industry Growth

According to a study by Allied Market Research, the global robotics technology market is forecast to reach US$82.7 billion by 2020, growing at a compound annual growth rate of slightly more than 10 per cent. Asia-Pacific is currently generating the most revenue, with North America expected to experience the most rapid growth over the next four years, as stated by the report. With the International Federation of Robotics reporting that China, Japan, the U.S., Korea and Germany currently account for 70% of market sales, Dudek says Canada is positioning itself to be a significant player by taking a leading role in field robotics, with several companies in the network already key players on the world stage.

Not long ago, Canadian researchers headed south of the border to innovate. Now, NCFRN is allowing researchers to “build it here and keep it here,” while opening the door to significant export opportunities, Dudek explained. In the absence of a national network, Canadian ideas would continue to migrate south to the benefit of American companies instead, he said.

Canada’s Robotic Network

The network connects 11 research labs based at eight different Canadian universities and is working with key industrial partners to further important research in four main areas: land, water, air and human (helping people with impairments, for example). Due to the rugged terrain of much of our country, Canada is uniquely positioned to solve field robotics challenges related to measuring, protecting, controlling or observing our environment, Dudek said.

Kitchener-based Clearpath Robotics – a University of Waterloo start-up founded in 2009 – is an example of how the network is helping to accelerate innovations. A leader in unmanned vehicle robotics for research and development, Clearpath Robotics is working to “automate the world’s dullest, dirtiest and deadliest jobs” and relies on NCFRN’s annual field trials to better understand how customers are applying its technology.

“It’s exciting to get firsthand exposure to research results and have the opportunity to work with promising new graduates,” said Clearpath Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder Ryan Gariepy. “It’s vital to our industry that we continue to raise awareness and find ways to unite Canada’s champions of innovation.”

More than 1,000 Clearpath robots are currently deployed in 42 countries around the world, exploring new methods to remove landmines, harvest apples, survey mines, detect environmental disasters and perform other field tasks. The University of Chile is adapting the company’s Husky unmanned ground vehicle to scout unknown territory in the country’s open pit mining industry, removing the need to endanger human lives, and University of Toronto researchers are using both the Husky and Grizzly robots to help develop the next generation software for the Mars Rover in conjunction with the Canadian Space Agency.

Neptec Technologies, an Ottawa-based spin-off of Neptec Design Group Ltd. and NCFRN member, was founded in 2011 to develop patented 3D Real-time intelligence (3DRi) hardware and software technologies to solve real-world automation problems in the mining, oil and gas, defence and aerospace industries. It recently won a contract to deliver software that will be used to control a space-age drill currently under development by a Sudbury-based company and intended to further the notion of space mining. The robotic device – likened to a “space age army knife” – will attach to the Canadian Space Agency robotic arm and will have the ability to drill roughly 10cm into extraterrestrial crust in order to collect samples.

University of Alberta Professor Hong Zhang has conducted robotics research for more than 25 years. He said that in the past few years he has relied on NCFRN funding to hire additional graduate students, buy necessary equipment and cover travel expenses related to attending important academic events and conferences.

He is currently leading a team of 10 researchers at the university to advance machine vision, and develop mobile robots that can use visual information to build maps of new environments and determine where they are at all times, even when environment conditions change. “Currently, robots often fail at tracking their positons,” explained Zhang. “If we want robots to perform over a long period of time, they need to recognize where they are constantly, and they can do this by building sort of a camera-based GPS that works accurately, indoors or outdoors, day or night, and rain or shine.”

To recognize their locations from camera images, typically robots sift through many thousands of stored images in the robot maps. This requires the development of efficient computer algorithms. To handle change in lighting due to time of the day or weather, Zhang’s research team builds algorithms to remove lighting from the images before they are used for location recognition.

One application for the outdoor robots and university’s advanced machine vision research is wildlife monitoring. Western Canada’s oil sand mining industry, for example, is interested in using robots to detect the number and species of birds travelling through or near its mine sites to ensure they are protected. The railway industry is also looking to use robots to learn the movement patterns or habits of bears along railroad tracks so it can proactively install technology to warn them of coming trains.

Latest In Robotics Showcased

At the most recent NCFRN Field Trials, held in Sudbury this summer, researchers demonstrated the latest in robotic boats, submarines, drones and rovers, testing new methods for communicating with humans including the ability to gauge trust.

Additional robotics innovations under way include:

– Underwater robots that can monitor Canada’s east coast to observe and report on floating icebergs, a growing concern due to climate change. Icebergs are not only a danger to ships and underwater cables, they can also pose a very real threat to oil drilling platforms.

– Unmanned vehicle robots that can create 3D maps of crime scenes and “sniff out” bomb threats.

– Amphibious robots that can swim through the ocean and then walk on land, currently being used by researchers to assess the health of endangered coral reefs.

– Drones that can be controlled from the ground using hand signals and waves.

– Robots that can detect and avoid people, useful in designing smart wheelchairs.

“Field robotics is an important segment of the exploding robotics industry and it’s an area where Canadian research excels,” said Dudek. “These innovations will not only change our lives, but will also help assure Canada’s place in the rapidly-evolving robotics economy. With continued investment, Canada has the opportunity to maintain a leading position in one of the most important industries moving forward.”

About the NCFRN

Established in 2012, the NCFRN is a federally-sponsored research organization that brings together academic researchers and companies doing leading-edge robotics. More than a dozen Canadian companies participate in the network and come from sectors including space robotics, ocean resource management, telepresence and robotics systems manufacturing. Participating researchers are from McGill University, University of Alberta, Simon Fraser University, Memorial University, University of Waterloo, York University, University of Toronto, Ryerson University, Queens University, University of Sherbrooke, and Laval University. Canadian industrial partners include Clearpath, Aeryon Labs, Crosswing, MDA, Kinsol Research, Quanser and Neptec. Participating government organizations include Hydro Quebec, the Canadian Space Agency, and Defence Research and Development Canada.