A Canadian-designed stick-swinging robot could be the answer to the plague of broken hockey sticks that frequently litter the ice during NHL games.
A team of students and a professor at the University of Waterloo hope their invention — a two-handed contraption that can grab a hockey stick and repeatedly fire off blistering slapshots as fast as 180 km/h — will revolutionize the game by leading to stronger sticks that are less prone to break at critical moments.
It could also save money for parents of young hockey players, who spring for expensive products that break prematurely.
"You know all about sticks breaking, it's a big problem," said professor John McPhee, the chief scientist behind the new company Hockey Robotics. "At the high levels it's a performance issue, at the amateur levels it's a major cost problem for young hockey players, who are breaking their sticks and have to invest another $100 to $200 in a new stick."
The company is prepping for its official launch in July, when it plans to begin offering its services testing hockey sticks. Prof. McPhee got the idea for the puck-smacking robot about five years ago, while researching golf technology, which he said is typically several years ahead of hockey in innovation.
"I thought, 'Well how hard can that be?' It turns out to be quite a bit harder than making a golf robot, because a golf robot only needs one arm, it only needs to hold a club at one spot," Prof. McPhee explained.
"With a hockey robot, you have to hold a stick in two places and the stick has to be able to bend significantly between those two locations."
The team went through a few prototype designs before building its full-scale robot in the last year. It can replicate the different ways players take slapshots and give hockey sticks a thorough torture test.
"The robot is highly variable, so it's got many degrees of freedom," said student Jean-Samuel Rancourt, who is leading business development for the company. "The angles of the wrists, the angles of the arms, how the stick goes . . . we can change those variables and see what happens if the hands are two inches lower, or what happens if the stick has a different flex."
The company has already signed a partnership agreement with Sherbrooke, Que.-based stick maker Sherbrook SBK Hockey to begin testing how different materials, designs or construction techniques could improve durability.
A partnership with Toronto-based Integran Technologies will also involve adding a nano-metal cladding to hockey sticks to help keep them from snapping.
Prof. McPhee imagines the robot eventually could be used as a coaching tool, to help players perfect shooting form.
"The robot was designed based on a player's swing, so you can see how we might be able to go the other way and use the robot to try out different swing profiles and train the player," he said.
"That, and we think we should be able to come up with a stick that's individually suited to a player, just like we do in golf today."