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The Space Shuttle Atlantis with the Canadarm2. (NASA)
The Space Shuttle Atlantis with the Canadarm2. (NASA)

Canada Competes

Can Canada maintain its edge in robotics? Add to ...

As robots quietly move into our factories, homes and hospitals, not to mention outer space, now is the time for Canada to take our existing expertise and stake a claim as a global leader in this increasingly competitive field, experts say.

“I think robotics is really taking off,” says Gregory Dudek, director of computer science at McGill University. “I’ve been involved in robotics for 25 years and we’ve been saying, ‘It’s coming, it’s coming.’ Well, now it’s here – there are robots driving down the streets of California,” such as Google’s self-driving car.

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Broadly speaking, there are six main areas of focus in robotics: space exploration, manufacturing, surgery, personal service, research, and law enforcement or military defence. (The precise definition of robotics can be a moving target, so the areas of focus are, by association, also called into debate. Some contend that a robot is a machine that can perform autonomously without requiring programming; others see a robot as any machine that takes its cue from a human operator – for example, in prosthetic limbs.)

In two of these areas – manufacturing and personal service – our country is not among the global leaders and may not make up ground. A firm such as ATS Automation of Cambridge, Ont., has a strong presence in automated manufacturing, but numerous companies in Japan and other countries have been investing heavily in this area for decades.

Canada has potential to develop in the other fields, but as with any burgeoning, resource-hungry industry, there are many factors that have the potential to send the needle swinging from the red to the black and vice versa.

An area such as military defence is, understandably, influenced by the sudden onset of war or the forging of lasting peace. It also makes perfect sense that funding – for any of the six areas – would go to firms with inventions that have the potential to generate traction in the marketplace. This phenomenon gives rise to a “which comes first” scenario – the robot or the funding?

The Canadian Space Agency has been a noteworthy supporter of robotics programs in the past, attempting to build on a legacy established by the iconic Canadarm, a robotic arm used on many space shuttle missions. A commitment of $110-million over three years just concluded this year; the funds went to 40 private sector companies and a dozen universities, all working on advanced robotics and space exploration technologies.

“In general, the government is providing whatever funds they can,” says Andrew Goldenberg, professor of robotics at the University of Toronto. “There are a lot of programs in the government, so I don’t think lack of funding is the problem. We have problems with the market in general, with absorbing robotics in the market.”

But both professors are quick to identify Canadian robotics companies on the verge of making waves that push well past our borders – and one in particular that has already made a big impact.

That company would be MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) of Richmond, B.C. This firm’s subsidiary, MD Robotics, then known as Spar Aerospace, developed the original Canadarm. All told, there were five versions of the mechanical arm produced and they took part in a combined 90 space shuttle missions from 1983 to 2011.

Emblazoned with the Maple Leaf, the Canadarm rightly became a symbol of national pride as images of the mechanical limb performing Herculean tasks in space were beamed to television sets around the world.

MDA’s involvement in space exploration has continued. The most recent high-profile success was the robotic arm fitted to the Mars Curiosity Rover that explored the red planet earlier this year. The company has also ventured into other areas of robotics, including the medical field with its NeuroArm, an image-guided mechanism for use in neurosurgery.

“Medical robotics has picked up some steam over the past few years,” says Prof. Goldenberg, whose own company, Engineering Services Inc. (ESI), is active in the field. “We are currently working together with the University Health Network in Toronto to develop a robotic to assist with prostate surgery.”

This surgery is not yet FDA-approved, perhaps because it’s downright Orwellian. The robot is in the operating theatre with the patient, while the surgeon sits in a control room watching a high-resolution monitor and controlling the device via joysticks. The robot incorporates a levelling mechanism to offset the tremors in the surgeon’s hand and provides a view of the action that is far superior to watching it “live and in-person.”

In terms of future marketability, Prof. Dudek believes that Canada’s robotics industry shows plenty of promise, particularly in the areas where our expertise has room to develop.

“I think that robotics related to outdoor environments has a lot of potential,” he suggests. “Once you monitor our land, you can then conduct resource exploration. When the north opens up, we’re going to need eyes up there and that’s best accomplished by robotics and satellite technology.”

His own company, an offshoot of his work at McGill called Independent Robotics Inc., constructs autonomous or tele-operated devices that can travel on land or underwater. This type of robot could prove very useful in performing onerous or dangerous tasks, such as investigating a hazardous spill site. (One government agency, Defence Research and Development Canada, is active in providing funding for these types of robots.)

Prof. Dudek identifies another company, Clearpath Robotics of Kitchener, Ont., as being a leading light in this field.

The company, which produces unmanned land and water vehicles for research that clients modify for their use, has more than 350 global customers, ranging from defence departments to educational institutions.

Clearpath CEO and co-founder Matt Rendell identifies customization as one of the company’s competitive advantages. For instance, its Kingfisher unmanned watercraft, which was originally meant as an environmental survey tool, has been modified for uses ranging from harbour surveillance to monitoring volcanic activity, to mapping storm water facilities. “It is at its core a platform that can move from point A to point B in environments where you really wouldn’t want to put a human,” he says. “An oil spill, for example, or hostile territory, or cold environments, or very fast moving water.”

But even in the fields in which Canada excels, how to create leading companies?

The global demand for robots and robot-related products was worth about $21-billion (U.S.) in 2010. The market is expected to grow to nearly $22-billion in 2011 and $30-billion by 2016, according to U.S. market research firm BCC Research LLC.

Prof. Dudek believes a grander approach is required to keep Canada at the forefront: “Consortia are forming all over the world – there’s the National Robotics Initiative in the U.S. and a similar alliance in Europe. That’s the competitive landscape. On the whole, Canada has a good group of robotics people, but we need to build a big team of people working together in order to compete.”

Adds Prof. Dudek, “The robotics field is going to heat up and get very competitive. ... We’re well-positioned to move forward, but we need to get moving now.”

With a report from Christina Varga

Join the conversation on Canada's competitiveness by following Canada Competes on Twitter:@CanadaCompetes

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