July 18, 2016      

Canadian robotics has come a long way from the days when the Canadarm flew on over 90 Space Shuttle missions. While Canadarm 2 is currently an essential part of the International Space Station, Canadian robotics companies are now reaching into a growing number of fields. They include transportation, health care, and various types of robotic vision and mobility technologies.

Robotics companies can be found across Canada, but Ontario can make a solid claim to being the hub of Canadian robotics. Local universities, particularly the University of Toronto and its internationally recognized Institute for Robotics and Mechatronics (IRM), have led to the formation of numerous robotic startups led by scores of young, eager tech entrepreneurs.

Another, although less well-known, center of Canadian robotics education and research is the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. The school’s Robotics and Control Group, operating under the auspices of its Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, focuses on advanced robotic systems.

The group is designing devices and controls for minimally invasive surgery and therapy. It is also working on applications for next-generation mobile systems, including underwater robots.

Basement beginnings for Clearpath Robotics

Many Ontario-based robotics companies have origins reminiscent of Silicon Valley high-tech startups. Kitchener, Ontario-based Clearpath Robotics Inc., for example, was launched in a basement seven years ago by Matthew Rendall and three friends who enjoyed tinkering with robots while in college.

Frustrated by their own robot design experiences, and with just a $50 investment, the foursome set out to develop systems that to solve real-world problems through a process of persisting, failing, iterating and ultimately succeeding.

The company’s most successful product to date is OTTO 1500, a heavy-load material transporter. With a payload capacity of 1500 kg, OTTO 1500 can move both large items and standard pallets using Clearpath’s own localization and mapping software. This eliminates the need for magnetic tape, bar codes, or any other fixed infrastructure for navigate around a distribution site, storage facility, or production floor.

As workflows change, waypoints are simply uploaded with a click of a button. OTTO intelligently detects and avoids obstacles using dynamic path planning and built-in safety-rated sensors, including front and rear lidar sensors.

Other Clearpath products include Grizzly, a large all-terrain robotic utility vehicle that combines the performance of a tractor with the precision of an industrial robot. The all-electric vehicle offers a 600-kg payload capacity.

For the research market, Clearpath offers Husky, a medium-sized robotic development platform that can accommodate a variety of customized payloads. Husky can be configured to incorporate stereo cameras, lidar, GPS, inertial measurement units (IMUs), manipulators, and numerous other devices.

Also aimed at robot researchers is Jackal, a small, entry-level field platform. The system features an onboard computer, GPS and an IMU. Like other Clearpath robots, Jackal is plug-and-play compatible with a variety of robot accessories.

Canadian robotics enables R&D and surgery

Another Kitchener-based robotic company, Redtree Robotics Inc., builds Hydra, which allows engineers and technicians easily connect sensors, actuators, components, and other essential parts without juggling complex circuits, specialized hardware, or device drivers.

Redtree claims that its development platform is ideal for swarm and other applications where reliable communication is important.

In nearby Toronto, Synaptive Medical Inc. is working to advance surgical robotics with its BrightMatter Servo. Surgical tools can be precisely aligned with the system’s robotic arm (a Canadian specialty) for intuitive operation on the patient.

The arm can be controlled via a touchscreen display during up and with a specialized foot pedal during a surgical procedure, leaving the surgeon’s hands free.

BrightMatter also has multiple optical component options, including the integrated OverView Camera, which provides a global view of the surgical field.

Guidance and extreme vehicles

Just north of Toronto is the town of Markham, home of Bluewrist Inc., an industrial automation provider that specializes in robotics and machine vision. The company produces robot guidance, bin picking, calibration, and a variety of other systems.

One of Bluewrist’s top products is EzRG, a generic guidance system with six degrees of freedom. It includes cameras and offers many configuration and user frame calculation strategies.

The company’s FlexiPick offering is an advanced bin-picking system allowing a robot to pick up parts randomly placed in a bin and present them to the assembly process.

While not a robotics startup, New Hamburg-based Ontario Drive & Gear Ltd. has produced the Argo extreme-terrain vehicles since 1967, now offers a fully amphibious line of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs).

Available in four-, six-, and eight-wheel versions, the Argo line provides semi- and fully autonomous systems for agricultural, military, mining, exploration, forestry, and academic applications.

The ARGO J5, ATLAS J6, and ATLAS J8 models can accommodate large payloads in a modular, open platform design.

In my next article, we’ll look at more on guidance systems and how the IRM is involved in the development of assistive robotics.

More on Canadian Robotics: