Ottawa a ‘hotbed’ of robotics tech
Driving down the road in Greely, one might spot a black tank-like vehicle the size of a small car cruising around the parking lot of an office building at 15 kilometres per hour – with no one in the driver’s seat.
X4i Corp. and Provectus Robotics Solutions Inc. both develop robotic technology in the south Ottawa village. Their customers include the RCMP, which purchased a large vehicle developed by X4i and Provectus. The machine uses the platform of a Polaris Ranger ATV that is meant to safely disrupt improvised explosive devices.
“Instead of a man wearing a full hazmat suit and carrying his sensors downrange into who knows what, you have the ability to send a robot,” says Paul Rocco, president of Provectus.
Another locally developed robot, this one stationed at the Jean Lesage International Airport in Quebec City, loads suspicious packages into a secure compartment within the robot and transports them to a safe location.
That means an airport terminal shutdown lasts only minutes instead of the hours it could take for a bomb squad to arrive and clear the area, saving the airport hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenues.
It also means that airport customers, paying approximately $300,000 per robot, will likely see a return on investment after only one incident, says Mr. Rocco. The company is actively marketing that product, called the Remote Package Handling System, to airports around the world.
Provectus develops the software and overall systems for the robots, and X4i Corp. contributes subsystems including lithium ion battery packs that power the machine, electronics trays and electromechanical testing.
Lubo Morhac, who founded X4i in 2011, has been working with Mr. Rocco in various capacities for more than a decade.
Provectus and X4i aren’t the only local companies gaining traction in the unmanned vehicle industry.
ICOR Technology Inc.’s robots are the national standard for bomb squad training at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa.
ICOR’s flagship robot, the MK3-Caliber, was used earlier this month when a suspicious package was discovered in front of the Department of National Defence. The remotely operated vehicle, armed with six cameras, can approach the bomb threat and fire a disrupter – essentially a blast of water acting as a bullet to safely separate the components from the initiator. An arm on the robot then collects the pieces and moves them to a safe spot.
“The whole point is stand-off distance, keeping you out of harm’s way,” says Andrew Kavalersky, ICOR’s vice-president of sales and marketing. “We take a lot of pride in being able to save lives.”
The 185-pound, 22-inch robot was launched in 2007 and marked the beginning of a line of three ICOR robots, each smaller than the next. The most recent iteration, the Mini-Caliber, allows SWAT teams to easily lift the 60-pound machine and stash it in a trunk until needed.
Each robot is outfitted with two-way communication devices, which are useful for hostage situations, Mr. Kavalersky says.
The RCMP is ICOR’s biggest customer in Canada, and the U.S. Department of State is its largest client overall. The department’s Antiterrorism Assistance Program ships ICOR robots to bomb squads around the world in an effort to quell international violence.
ICOR resides in a custom-built, 27,500-square-foot facility where its robots are designed and manufactured. Its 35 employees include executives, assembly line workers and machinists that manufacture individual components on-site.
Since the company’s inception in 2005, ICOR has grown its revenues by more than 433 per cent, according to Mr. Kavalersky.
Shipping internationally to countries such as Colombia, Mexico, Greece and India means an increased risk of being unable to track down payment for a product, but that hasn’t stopped ICOR from selling approximately 500 robots globally thus far, with prices ranging from $35,000 to $130,000.
LOOKING FORWARD AND LOOKING BACK
ING Robotic Aviation – a local company that has provided all aerial robots for the Canadian Forces since the firm was founded in 2008 – has witnessed the evolution of unmanned vehicles in the defence and security industry.
“It’s gone from being a science fiction project to where, in every operational environment, unmanned systems are considered a core piece of the solution,” says Wilson Pearce, ING’s chief operating officer.
The company’s 50 employees include a dozen staff members at its head office in Orleans.
ICOR’s Mr. Kavalersky says that public perception is also becoming more favourable towards unmanned vehicles.
“Certainly the industry is realizing that this is a useful tool,” he says. “It’s not a toy, it’s not a remote control car, it’s a very useful tool that can save you time and put you out of harm’s way.”
Mr. Kavalersky says Ottawa’s rich robotics industry likely began because of Med-Eng Systems Inc., a local defence and security firm that was acquired for $650 million in 2007 by Allen-Vanguard Corp. – another homegrown company that resides just up the street from ICOR.
“Our American friends say, ‘Why is Ottawa such a hotbed?’ It’s because Med-Eng started here and it just mushroomed,” Mr. Kavalersky says. “A lot of R&D and study went into blast mitigation, and it really helped to develop a good counter-terrorism group here and some really innovative technologies.”
SIDEBAR: Company profiles
Provectus Robotics Solutions Inc.
Customers: Law enforcement, airports
Customers: Local original equipment manufacturers
ICOR Technology Inc.
Customers: Bomb squads, SWAT teams, nuclear power plants
ING Robotic Aviation
Employees: 12 locally, 50 total
Customers: Energy, utilities, mining, and defence and security industries