Article Source: AUVSI Magazine
Photos: Gail Jansen/AUVSI Magazine
Canada’s history with unmanned vehicle systems stems from military applications, born from one of the world’s pre-eminent unmanned vehicle centers, the Department of Research and Development Canada (DRDC) Suffield.
DRDC Suffield began in the late 1980s developing unmanned systems technologies for training applications. By the 1990s it was starting to apply that same technology to other areas including mine detection, bomb disposal and advanced surveillance.
Today, DRDC Suffield has grown from a few key scientists to a team of more than 22 science and technology personnel whose focus remains on the science behind unmanned systems and on the capabilities they can provide to Canada’s military forces. Along the way its developments have also been the keys to success for a number of Canada’s biggest players in the unmanned market.
“The impact DRDC has had on Canada’s place in the unmanned systems race is phenomenal, and you can trace a significant majority of companies that are currently working in Canada to work that was done by DRDC,” says Spencer Fraser, CEO of Meggitt Training Systems Canada, Canada’s only original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to successfully build unmanned systems for air, land and sea applications, some of which are a direct result of technology transfers
from the DRDC.
International Submarine Engineering (ISE) Ltd. is another worldleading OEM that has seen successful technology transfers from DRDC, specifically DRDC Atlantic, which initiated the design of ISE’s Arctic Explorer autonomous underwater vehicle system for military applications. With modifications developed by ISE, the Arctic Explorer has since been successfully commercialized and recently used by NRCan (Natural Resources Canada) as a cost-effective mode of monitoring Canada’s Arctic waters.
That use not only resulted in a new operations support contract from Canada’s Department of National Defence to help define Canada’s extended continental shelf in previously inaccessible areas, but also saw NRCan break the world record for continuous underwater operation, when the Arctic Explorer completed more than 10 days of continuous, autonomous operation under ice in the spring of 2010 (for more information, see the December 2010 issue of Unmanned Systems).
ISE’s system is not alone in its record-breaking status. In early 2010, Meggitt conducted its successful Swarmex event, which saw 16 Hammerhead target surface vehicles simultaneously controlled to simulate a naval asymmetrical threat, a feat that Meggitt’s Fraser says no one else has even been able to come remotely close to achieving.
But the ties between Meggitt and DRDC Suffield go beyond research and development; they also share ties in proximity, as both are located in Southern Alberta, and Meggitt often uses CFB Suffield’s experimental proving ground to test many of its unmanned aircraft and ground vehicles. Meggitt is also licensed to manufacture DRDC Suffield’s MATS (Multi-Agent Tactical Sentry), a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear contaminants detection robotic system.
Still another major player in Canada’s unmanned ground market is Allen Vanguard, which produces two robotic platforms optimized for exclusive ordinance disposal — the Defender and the Vanguard. The company sells the robots to military markets around the world, including at home in Canada and to U.S. forces deployed in Afghanistan as a method of dealing with the threat of improvised explosive devices.
While these and other success stories highlight Canada’s strengths as a developer of unmanned systems for research and development practices and for military contracts, a newer generation of industry is emerging that looks to create a niche all its own not only in research and development but also in commercial and civil applications.
A New Frontier
Leading the charge into this new era of development is Canada’s Centre for Unmanned Vehicles Systems (CCUVS), located just down the road from both DRDC Suffield and Meggitt in Medicine Hat, Alberta, which have recently transitioned into a new business model. President and CEO Dewar Donnithorne-Tait (a former president of AUVSI) says now is the time to focus on what he believes will be Canada’s niche market.
“Customer demand is growing,” says Donnithorne-Tait, “so our focus is shifting to where we are application rich and where we have jurisdictional need and advantage.”
That, Donnithorne-Tait says, “is primarily in the resources sector, the environmental concerns associated with the resource sector, andefficient management of municipal services and utilities.”
With an aim to come forward with a new marketing message within the year, Donnithorne-Tait says the CCUVS will have a mandate to “not promote unmanned vehicles systems per se, but instead promote unmanned vehicles systems as a profitable enabler for targeted customer communities, and in some cases, to grow our small-medium sized companies into the local marketplace.”
That would include companies like Inuktun of Nanaimo, British Columbia, whose pipe inspection crawlers have the capacity to service resource industries and have successfully been doing so around the world. But it’s the challenge of selling the value proposition of this technology right here at home that Colin Ross, sales and marketing manager of Inuktun, sees as the biggest challenge he faces, as most industries don’t yet know enough about the technology to buy into it.
The recent downturn in the economy and the strengthening of the Canadian dollar are actually factors helping industry buy into the resource application of unmanned systems, at least at home.
“In the last six months,” Ross says, “we’ve seen this complete change and a larger interest from Canadian companies. All of a sudden we’re getting calls from Quebec and getting calls from Hibernia out in Newfoundland — and that really excites me. We’ve been predominately in the U.S. market for the last 15 years, so to rediscover your own territory is really nice. The Canadian market is slowly starting to respond to the value of these particular systems. We’re just starting to sell standard product to the Canadian military and the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police], so it’s still an emerging market, and in the next three to five years you’ll see us working to improve our core product line and make it usable in all of the industries we
want to be in.”
Matt Rendall, a founder of the start-up company Clearpath Robotics, echoes that assessment. Clearpath began as a spin-off of the University of Waterloo’s Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering, and its core strength lies in marketing its products for research and development. “We tried to identify what verticals would need this type of technology the most,” Rendall says, “and the conclusion that we came to was that aside from military, where there’s been pretty strong investment over the last decade or so, the industrial and consumer and commercial applications for unmanned vehicles really are just scratching
“All of the major sectors of an economy in natural resources, energy, agriculture, just three large examples, could benefit from outdoor automation or field robotics,” Rendall says. “But before getting to the point where products are successfully deployed, a significant amount of research and development is required, and so we cater to that research and development requirement.”
That sort of niche fulfillment is helping to accelerate the unmanned vehicles industry, he says.
“We’re already working with some of North America’s leading technical institutions to commercialize unmanned vehicle systems. So it’s very positive for us to see not only that our strategies are working but also that the industry is responsive to investing in research and development in this emerging sector,” Rendall says.
From tailing pond monitoring with surface vehicles to pipeline monitoring and mining applications, it’s turning technology into products that Rendall sees as Canada’s strength — if the country can seize the opportunity.
“Natural resources, mining, surveying, oil and gas, energy, all of them stand to benefit handsomely from the proper implementation and adoption of unmanned technology, especially in Canada because of how vast the country is,” Rendall says. “It’s just a matter of when and who. The industry is going to go that way but will it be a Canadian company that takes them there, or will it be another country or another company that’s going to generate all that economic stimulus or someone else?”
Ground systems aren’t the only products making headway in industry commercialization: Canada’s unmanned aerial vehicles are also joining the fray, including the parachute-based UAS built by MMIST of Ottawa, Ontario, whose SnowGoose is currently sold to U.S. forces.
That product that has commercial potential written all over it, says Donnithorne-Tait.
SnowGoose, a parachute-winged UAS that can carry nearly 600 pounds of cargo, “could be very relevant to energy and oil exploration in the Arctic. It’s designed for Arctic use, and it’s a complete and fascinating system,” he says.
Other Canadian success stories that are seeing real advancement as commercial use providers include Universal Wing for aerial and geophysical surveying services and Aeryon Labs, which markets its signature quadrotor unmanned helicopter, the Aeryon Scout. Lightweight solutions in UAS have also helped Manitoba’s Micropilot make its mark in commercial sales with user-friendly autopilots, sold to more than 500 clients in 60 countries.
One such customer is Accuas Inc. in Salmon Arm, British Columbia, whose application of Micropilot’s CropCam — combined with its own innovations to provide mapping images, 3-D models and topographic images for clients — has it high on the list of Canada’s most successful commercial applications of unmanned systems.
Still only in its third full year of operations, Accuas has seen rapid growth in the geomatics market and provides a service and a product that are high in demand, both within Canada and beyond..
“Last year we did about 100 flights, and we’ve already booked that many for this year,” says president Scott McTavish. What began as simple mapping for municipal and regional district landfill operations soon evolved to include new clients in mining, property development and agriculture lining. Accuas is now looking to expand around the globe with a franchised-style model in the coming year.
“Four years into this,” McTavish says, “and I still haven’t found anyone else that is doing this commercially. There’s a lot of research and R&D going into it and government type stuff, and there are some private industries doing things, but they’re not really out there commercially yet. There are so many applications for it — and we’ve even noticed in the last year there’s been a lot more interest in what we are doing and a bit of a buzz starting.”
Buzz has also begun around police and rescue service applications with Saskatoon, Saskatchewan’s Draganflyer. Manufacturing its own brand of small, multi-engine unmanned helicopters, with safe operations, longer flight times and ability to carry heavier payloads, often without the need for segregated airspace, Draganflyer has seen three industrial models come to the forefront of its operations.
“Right now where we would really like to focus is in emergency services and providing that application, just because of the size and the affordability of our unit,” says Draganflyer’s Kevin Lauscher. “One of the big factors is a lot of law enforcement and emergency services simply do not have the funding to deal with the equipment that is available from the military suppliers — it’s just way out of their league as far as budgets go, so ours ends up being a little bit more
cost effective for them.”
Donnithorne-Tait says there are many technologies in the country primed for commercialization, but industries need to be educated on how unmanned systems can help them.
“The benefit for military and emergency services of taking people out of dull, dirty or dangerous tasks is already proven,” he says, “but there are very few roles, maybe in chemical plants and energy facilities, where the purely commercial sector would use dull, dirty, dangerous. So instead you’re looking at selling unmanned systems into a commercial space for some combination of words around ‘faster, better, cheaper,’ because unmanned systems can help in all of those areas.
“We are rich in application,” Donnithorne-Tait says. “And in those where we have jurisdictional requirement and benefit, like the resources sector, we have a disproportionately big market we need to focus our activities, and that’s exactly what were doing right now.” Meggitt Hammerhead targets take part in last year’s successful Swarmex event. Photo courtesy CDL and Meggitt.
Taking It to the Streets
Motive Industries, a vehicle design company that has produced components for Meggitt’s Hammerheads, is a new entrant in the unmanned systems market and wants to take things in a new direction. Under the guidance of president Nathan Armstrong, the company wants to create an autonomous, six-passenger automobile that would meet all automotive safety regulations and be built entirely from Canadian technology.
If all goes as planned, the vehicle will be featured at the Clean Energy Congress, the world’s first global clean energy meeting, set to be held in Calgary in November.
“We hope that Canada can kind of make a bit of advancement in this area,” Armstrong says. “We hope that we can put a flag in the sand and say: “This is Canadian technology.” We know that other countries have been doing it, but no one has really come along and done a better vehicle, and that’s a threshold that we would like to see Canada surpass with our vehicle.”
Caution and Experience
“There’s a bit of wild frontier and a dot-com boom going on with people saying ‘This can do this and this can do that.’ That’s exciting,” says Meggitt’s Fraser. “As one of the groups, along with Allen Vanguard that’s been at this the longest, I’d have to say we’re a bit more conservative.
“Better, faster, cheaper? Better and cheaper don’t typically go hand in hand. But there’s no doubt that as the technology becomes more ubiquitous, it will change the way we are currently doing certain things,” he says. “Do I believe that in 60 years you’ll jump in your car and say ‘Drive me to Calgary’ and your seats will be facing inwards while you play a card game? Absolutely — because most of that technology exists today. But there’s a whole socio/psycho acceptance curve that has to go along with the technology, and that’s the
part that’s just going to take time.”