Robots to the Rescue (Globe and Mail)

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Author: Ryan Bigge

Inuktun started out catering to wealthy boat-owners. Now, its machines patrol nuclear power plants, oil pipelines and the devastation wrought by natural disasters

Colin Dobell can't brag about his company nearly as much as he'd like to. "A lot of the things our equipment gets used for, we don't find out about," says the president of Inuktun Systems Ltd., a robotics company based in Nanaimo, B.C. "And the coolest stuff we do, I can't tell you about."

Inuktun makes remote-controlled crawler vehicles, with names like NanoMag and Versatrax, that feature pan-tilt-zoom cameras, manipulator arms, powerful rare-earth magnets that allow the machines to move upside-down, sometimes even lasers. The company's clients - the ones Dobell can talk about - include the Canadian Space Agency, the U.S. State Department, Ontario Hydro, Hitachi Nuclear, and various offshore oil and gas companies. Inuktun robots also helped in search and rescue efforts after the Sept. 11 attack and Hurricane Katrina. And over the past few weeks, Dobell has been on the phone with officials in Japan almost daily to help decide if and how Inuktun's robots might safely inspect and assess the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant.

The aforementioned NanoMag might be one option. Since it's magnetized, it can inspect steel pipes at the top of pressurized-water reactors for corrosion (which has been an issue at U.S. reactors). And unlike humans, it can withstand lethal doses of radiation. The company is now moving toward using stainless steel (instead of brass or aluminum) to make its robots, because steel is easier to decontaminate after being exposed to nuclear materials.

Inuktun was founded in 1989 by a pair of submarine designers, Terry Knight and Al Robinson (now the company's principal mechanical designer), who initially sold underwater robotic cameras to powerboat owners with more money than brains. (The idea was to enable them to watch what was going on below the surface.) After that market proved limited, they shifted to the nuclear power industry, which needed submersible, remote-controlled camera units to assess fuel rods in cooling tanks. Today, Inuktun has 36 employees, including mechanical and software engineers, technicians and machinists. (Dobell himself trained as a computer scientist.) The company sells about 40 mobile robotic units a year, along with 60 camera systems. In 2009, it began offering high-definition underwater video cameras. While Inuktun typically deals with industrial clients, one of the first HD orders came from the U.S. national swim team. "They mount the camera on the bottom of a pool and film their swimmers during practice," says Dobell.

Although a camera on its own sells for only a few thousand dollars, the entry-level cost for a mobile unit is $60,000. Controlled by what Dobell calls "a glorified computer gaming joystick," a standard tracker unit can race down a pipe at up to nine metres per minute. About 20% of orders are for custom robots that can run as high as $300,000. At that price, your machine might include chemical, radiation and sonar sensors, along with lasers to help better judge the scale and size of objects - particularly handy for search and rescue operations.

"There are always incredibly unusual requests," Dobell says. "We are getting asked for robots to do strange things in Japan. But as you can imagine, they don't want me talking about it just yet."


Priscilla Johnson

Since 1989, Inuktun Services Ltd. has been designing and building remotely operated systems that bridge the gap between people and the physical world, helping clients reach the unreachable and see the unseen. Whether you are working in a hazardous area, deep underwater, or in extremely confined spaces, Inuktun’s lineup of modular robotic crawlers and cameras make it possible to perform inspection and remote handling jobs safely and efficiently. And, the Inuktun Multi-Mission Modular (IM3) technology developed by Inuktun means systems can be quickly adapted for different purposes.