Engineers put skills to the test in F1tenth autonomous challenge

Engineers put skills to the test in F1tenth autonomous challenge

By Scott Simmie

 

Want to win a scale model car race?

Normally you’d pimp your ride, slam the throttle to the max, and do your best at the steering control to overtake any opponents while staying on the track.

Now imagine a race where no one is controlling the car remotely. Where, in fact, the car is driving itself  – using sensors and algorithms to detect the course, avoid obstacles, and look continuously for the most efficient path to the finish line.

That’s the concept of F1TENTH, a regular competition held at major robotics conferences. The latest contest was carried out in Detroit at IROS 2023, the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems. The contest brings together researchers, engineers, and autonomous systems enthusiasts.

“It’s about Formula racing, but on a smaller scale – and it’s autonomous,” explains Hongrui (Billy) Zheng, a University of Pennsylvania PhD in electrical engineering, and a key organizer of the F1TENTH series.

And what does it take to win?

“I would say 90 per cent software, and 10 per cent hardware,” says Zheng.

And that means it’s more about brainpower than horsepower.

Before we dive in, check out one of the cars below:

F1tenth

A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

 

To keep things truly competitive, all teams begin with the same basic platform. They can either build that platform, based on the build guides at F1TENTH.org, or purchase the platform. The price of the vehicle, which this year incorporated a 2D LiDAR unit (which makes up the bulk of the cost), is about $2500-$2800 US.

“I would say 60 per cent is spent on the LiDAR,” says Zheng. “Some teams use a camera only, and that drives it down to around $1000.”

So it’s a lot more accessible – and a lot safer – than real Formula 1. And instead of high octane fuel, the teams are more concerned with powerful algorithms.

Once again, the basic Open-source Robot Operating System autonomy and obstacle avoidance software is part of the basic package that all teams start out with. But just as real F1 teams work together to extract every ounce of performance, so too do the F1TENTH teams, which usually represent universities but are occasionally sponsored by companies. At this year’s competition six of the nine teams were from universities.

The F1TENTH organization says there are four pillars to its overall mission. Here they are, taken directly:

1. Build – We designed and maintain the F1TENTH Autonomous Vehicle System, a powerful and versatile open-source platform for autonomous systems research and education.

2. Learn – We create courses that teach the foundations of autonomy but also emphasize the analytical skills to recognize and reason about situations with moral content in the design of autonomous.

3. Race – We bring our international community together by holding a number of autonomous race car competitions each year where teams from all around the world gather to compete.

4. Research – Our platform is powerful and versatile enough to be used for a variety of research that includes and is not limited to autonomous racing, reinforcement learning, robotics, communication systems, and much more.

In other words, there are real-world applications to all of this. Plus, for engineers, it’s not that difficult to dive in.

“The entire project is Open Source,” explains competitor Po-Jen Wang, a computer engineer from the University of California Santa Cruz. “It uses a Jetson Xavier (for compute). And for perception it uses a Hokuyo 2D LiDAR. Some people will mount a camera for computer vision. You can make it by yourself – it’s very easy to make.”

The following video provides a good introduction to the competition. In actual races, a piece of cardboard – sometimes modified for aerodynamics – is affixed to the rear of the car. These are to aid other vehicles on the track with obstacle avoidance.

 

PIMP THAT RIDE

 

Okay. So you’ve got your basic build, along with the basic ROS software.

Now it’s time to get to work. Engineers will add or modify algorithms for obstacle avoidance, acceleration, braking – as well as for determining the most efficient and optimal path. Depending on their approach, some teams will plot waypoints for the specific course.

Of course, like a real F1 race, a lot of modifications take place once teams are at the track. But in the case of F1tenth, those alterations tend to be code (though we’ll get to mechanical changes in a moment). Of course, scrolling through endless lines of programming isn’t the most efficient way to detect and eliminate bugs or improve efficiency. This is particularly true since multiple types of software are involved.

“There is software for SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) for the mapping part, there’s software for localisation, there’s software for basic tracking if you give it a waypoint,” says organizer Billy Zheng. “Some of the basic drivers are found in a repository on Github.

“Most of the good teams are very consistent, and most of the consistent ones use mappingand localisation. The second place winner this year was using a reactive method – you just drop it and it will work.”

With all those moving parts, many teams use a dashboard that displays multiple parameters in real-time as the car moves down the track. This allows them to more rapidly nail down areas where performance can be optimised.

“The good teams usually have a better visualisation setup, so it’s easier to debug what’s going on,” adds Zheng. “The good teams are using Foxglove – a spinoff from an autonomous driving company that created a dashboard for ROS.”

To get a better idea of what the engineers are seeing trackside, here’s a look at Foxglove in action during F1TENTH.

MECHANICALS

 

Though it’s 90 per cent about code, that’s not all.

“Some modify their vehicles in different ways, maybe make it more aerodynamic, change the wheels,” explains competitor Tejas Agarwal, a graduate of uPenn with a Masters in Robotics. Agarwal and Po-Jen Wang were both contracted by Japanese self-driving software company/foundation Autoware.

(As it turned out, Wang and Agarwal placed second and third, respectively.)

The wheels on the stock vehicles are more suited to pavement and dirt rather than indoors tracks, so wheels are a common modification. But this year’s winning team, from Université Laval, took it further.

“We lowered the centre of mass as much as possible, changed the wheels, and changed our motor for better control,” says Laval team leader Jean-Michel Fortin, a PhD student in computer science specialising in robotics.

Of course, they weren’t allowed to increase the power of the motor in order to keep things on an even playing field. But they wanted one that offered greater control at lower speeds.

“Usually at low speeds the (stock) motor is bad, so we changed that for a sensor equipped motor,” says Fortin.

“We also replaced our suspension because it was too soft. As soon as we were braking our LiDAR wasn’t seeing what it should. For the software part, we tuned everything to the maximum that we could. We also optimised the race line to make sure the race line that we predict is as close to what the car can do as possible.”

And it paid off. The Laval team, pictured below, was clearly in a celebratory mood after winning (Jean-Michel Fortin in centre). Following is second-place winner Po-Jen Wang, third-place winner Tejas Agarwal and organizer Billy Zheng.

 

Laval F1tenth
Po-Jen F1tenth
Billy F1tenth

INDRO’S TAKE

 

Competitions – particularly ones like this one – are highly useful. They foster collaborative teams and encourage innovative thinking. Plus, they’re just plain fun.

“F1TENTH is a tremendous initiative and a really great challenge for young engineers and autonomy enthusiasts,” says InDro Robotics CEO Philip Reece. “Those participating today could well be leaders in the autonomy sector tomorrow. We congratulate all who took part, with a special nod to the top three. Well done!”

Is there a similar engineering challenge you think is worth some words from us? Feel free to contact InDro’s Chief of Content Scott Simmie here.

And, if you’re a competitor beginning a job search, feel free to drop us a line with your resume here. InDro Robotics is Canada’s leading R&D aerial and ground robotics company and in a current phase of scaling. We’re always on the lookout to expand our talented and diverse engineering team.

Indro Robotics takes in IROS 2023 in Detroit

Indro Robotics takes in IROS 2023 in Detroit

By Scott Simmie

 

One of the most important gatherings in the field of robotics is underway in Detroit.

It’s the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, or IROS 2023. And InDro Robotics is there.

“IROS is kind of an open forum to discuss research in the fields of mobile robotics, manipulation and so much more,” says Account Executive Luke Corbeth. “It gives researchers the ability to collaborate with each other, as well as industry, through the exhibits.”

Or, as the conference describes itself: “IROS is a large and impactful forum for the international robotics research community to explore the frontier of science and technology in intelligent robots and smart machines, emphasising future directions and the latest approaches, designs and outcomes.”

There’s plenty to see (and learn). You’ll find robotic arms and hands – some with incredible dexterity. There are quadrupeds, bipeds, specialised sensors – even a race course where teams put small but fast autonomous racers against one another. Plus, of course, scores of seminars and poster exhibits highlighting new and important research in fields ranging from AI to remote microsurgery.

“Everyone who is working on the cutting edge of robotics comes to IROS to present their research,” says Corbeth.

Some of the best minds in the field – including Masters and PhD students from many parts of the world – come to learn, network and share. Even Amazon is here, specifically to hire people to design, build and operate new robots for its warehouses. So too is the Honda Research Institute.

WHAT IS ROS?

 

Though IROS stands for Intelligent Robots and Systems, “ROS” has another relevant meaning. In the industry, it stands for Robot Operating System. As ros.org describes it, ROS “is a set of software libraries and tools that help you build robot applications.”

These libraries and developer tools include state-of-the-art Open Source algorithms that are shared with developers around the planet. The original toolkit is known as ROS1, while the newer ROS2 has more robust security protocols and is being embraced at the corporate and industrial levels.

“Generally what is being built here is being built on ROS,” explains InDro Vice President Peter King. He goes on to explain that you can think of ROS as a facilitator that brings all the different parts of a robot – including different sensors and coding – together.

“ROS is language-agnostic,” says King. “You can bring in Python, you can bring in C++, you can bring in other sensors. ROS allows all of the packages to talk to each other.”

In some ways, that’s also what InDro Robotics does. As both a research and development company and an integrator, InDro frequently brings together disparate parts for a common purpose – most often, for special projects for clients.

“Everybody here is actually the perfect client for InDro,” says King. 

“Imagine you were studying autonomy and perception and you’re going to do this in ROS. These students and universities don’t have the budget or hardware or time to build what they need. So we can build a custom robot, generally outfitted with InDro Commander, so they can focus on simply coding their project.”

“It’s a very big international community – which I was not expecting,” adds Account Executive Amanda Gloor. “Plus, it’s great to see people showcasing technology from all over the world. One of the cooler things I saw was a robot that climbs storage tanks using magnets – then uses non-destructive testing to detect corrosion.”

Below: InDro Account Executive Amanda Gloor gets the Unitree GO2, which InDro distributes, to take a leap

POSTER EXHIBITS

 

If you’ve got the time (and the brains), the rotating poster exhibits are fascinating to dip into. There are some 1200 exhibitors either displaying their research or holding seminars. Some of that research could be the Next Big Thing, or a significant incremental advance that will be utilised in other applications.

A quick spin through just a few of the exhibits, during a session devoted to healthcare, revealed the following topics:

  • A shared autonomous nursing robot assistant with dynamic workspace for versatile mobile manipulation
  • Magnetic, modular, undulatory robot: Exploring fish-inspired swimming for advanced underwater locomotion and robotics
  • Contactless weight estimation of human body and body parts for safe robotics-assisted casualty extraction

As you can see, some are highly specialised. Now think of hundreds (and hundreds) of such research papers, each making a small (or even large) contribution to pushing the robotics envelope. That’s IROS.

But while such important niche research was in abundance, there was also a sense that the Big Picture moving forward involves AI. While that’s always been a part of the robotics world, recent advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning and machine vision took centre stage. Many of the keynotes – and smaller learning sessions – focussed on AI.

Wednesday’s plenary session, for example, was “Merging Paths: The shared history and convergent future of AI and Robotics.” One of the keynotes was “Deep predictive learning in Robotics: Optimizing models for adaptive perception and action” – followed by: “Empowering robots with continuous space and time representations.” Those are in addition to scores of separate sessions during the conference with an emphasis on AI. 

Instead of robots simply being aware of their surroundings and tasks, we appear to be heading into a world where these machines more fully understand the world around them, and make decisions based on that understanding. And that feels like a very big deal.

 

 

INDRO’S TAKE

 

There are always conferences going on in the robotics and UAV sectors. We could choose to attend all of them, but we tend to be selective.

For the academic and R&D world, IROS is the venue where we can learn about the latest cutting-edge research and technology – and display our own innovations (such as our new ROS-based indoor UAV, which has been gaining a lot of attention). So it’s good to be here again.

“The unique thing about InDro is our ability to have a conversation with virtually everyone at this conference,” says Luke Corbeth. “Given the scope of our work – whether it’s a new platform, or sensors, integration or production, there’s always some way we can be of value to those across the R&D community.”

It’s also a great place to meet the next generation of engineers and other specialists, some of whom may one day join the growing InDro team. 

Drones playing increasing role in disaster response: CAV Canada Panel

Drones playing increasing role in disaster response: CAV Canada Panel

By Scott Simmie

 

In recent years, drones have proven indispensable in the field of emergency services.

They’re routinely used to assess damage following disasters, to document serious accidents and allow roads to re-open sooner, for situational awareness during firefighting operations, Search and Rescue operations – and much more.

So as we head into a future of Smart Mobility and Smart Cities, it’s fair to assume that the role of drones will continue to grow. And that was the thrust of a panel at CAV Canada in Ottawa September 28 entitled “Aerial First Responders: Drones transforming emergency services.”

Moderated by InDro Robotics CEO Philip Reece, the panel brought together experts from the world of drones, EMT, AI/Machine Learning – and more.

 

Philip CAV Canada Drone Panel

THE EVENT

 

CAV Canada is an annual gathering devoted to the field of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. And drones are very much a part of that sector.

Down the road, it’s anticipated that automated drone deliveries of critical supplies – including medicines and even organs for transplant – will be routine in major urban centres. The US Federal Aviation Administration is already talking about setting aside specific corridors for use by UAVs to help ensure they do not conflict with traditional crewed aircraft. So that connected, autonomous future is coming – and emergency response will be part of that world.

The panel included experts from various specialties within the drone world. Those participating were:

  • Wade MacPherson, an Advanced Care Paramedic with the County of Renfrew and drone operator
  • Sharon Rossmark, CEO of Women and Drones and a commercial aircraft pilot
  • Dr. Robin Murphy, Raytheon Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University and a specialist in drones and disaster response. (Dr. Murphy was involved with deploying drones following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans back in 2005; the first use of drones in a US disaster scenario.)
  • Jason Chow, Director of Strategy and Business Development with Elroy Air. The company is manufacturing an automated delivery aircraft that can carry 300 pounds of cargo in a quickly swappable pod
  • Mathieu Lemay, CEO and Co-Founder of Lemay.ai and AuditMap.ai – and an authority on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Below: The panel. Philip Reece is on the far left; the other panel members appear in order above from L-R

Philip CAV Canada Drone Panel

GROWING USE OF DRONES

 

When it comes to emergency response, there’s no question that drones are now firmly part of the tool kit. And lately, it seems, there’s no shortage of disasters.

“Unfortunately we’re seeing more and more wildfires, more earthquakes, more floods – even tornadoes,” said Reece as he kicked off the session. Paramedic Wade Macpherson said it’s routine to deploy drones in his line of work.

MacPherson said his paramedic organization has eight drones that are used regularly. They’ve been used to deliver prescription medications during floods, in Search and Rescue missions, and for situational awareness. Not only can drones gather data or deliver critical medications, said MacPherson, but they also help keep other professionals out of harm’s way. He sees great potential for their use in delivering Automated External Defibrillators, which are used to help cardiac arrest patients. Research in Renfrew County has shown that a drone can deliver an AED unit faster than a speeding paramedic vehicle.

AEDs by drone, he said “could be an enormous game-changer…time is absolutely critical.” In fact, the odds an untreated cardiac patient will survive diminish by 10 per cent each subsequent minute following the event.

Recently, said MacPherson, the Renfrew paramedics were called to assist in locating a missing Canadian Forces helicopter that had crashed. And again, drones were deployed.

 

ELROY AIR

 

Most drones deployed in emergency response situations are smaller machines – with the smallest weighing just under 250 grams. While such machines can still prove useful for Search and Rescue and situational awareness, a growing number of companies are manufacturing larger uncrewed vehicles capable of greater range and cargo. Elroy Air is one of those companies.

“Our sweet spot is 300 pounds (cargo) and 300 miles (range),” said Jason Chow. Because the Elroy Air vehicle is a fixed-wing VTOL, it takes off and lands like a helicopter – meaning it doesn’t require a runway. Its cargo pod can be rapidly switched out. Chow says carrying humanitarian supplies and disaster relief are among the use-cases for such aircraft.

“(The aircraft can carry out) Search and Rescue, monitoring wildfires,” said Chow. “But the main one for us is the cargo pods, being able to go from a supply depot and move the different kinds of supplies the firefighters need to potentially dangerous areas where you don’t want helicopters flying.”

Using drones, he says, takes the risk and cost out of the equation. Medical supplies, food, water – even fuel or batteries – can be carried in those pods.

Below: The Elroy Air Chaparral, with cargo pod

 

Elroy Air Chaparral

AI, Machine Learning, Autonomy

 

Where things get really interesting is when you start layering in enhanced capabilities such as AI, Machine Learning, and autonomous flights.

Systems such as SkyScoutAi are capable of being automatically dispatched the moment AI detects the beginning of a wildfire. Data about the location and intensity of the burn can be quickly relayed to emergency responders. In other words, there’s a human “on the loop” – rather than someone manually operating the aircraft via remote control. It’s faster, more efficient, and should lead to earlier detection and mitigation.

The Elroy Air system also involves automated flights – and the company is exploring automation for loading the cargo pods. In a natural disaster or emergency, this would also mean that critical goods get to the required destination more quickly.

“We want to be able to prepackage all the cargo into these cargo pods so that you don’t have to be there in a dangerous environment,” said Chow. “That’s what we’re thinking about, extending the capabilities and reducing risk.”

The potential for AI appeals to paramedic MacPherson. He explained that while he’s confident about his paramedic skills, he doesn’t have the same proficiency when it comes to drones. An automated flight path for search and rescue operations, he said, would be more efficient than a paramedic manually operating the craft. “I’m an expert in paramedics and ultrasound, but not at all the latest drone techniques,” he said, adding that using AI to optimise the search path would be useful.

There was agreement elsewhere on the panel.

“It’s all about getting the right information to the right person at the right time,” said Dr. Robin Murphy. “How do you get it to them?…So AI’s got a huge role to play.”

 

TRAINING

 

There was also recognition that emergency response requires specialised skills. In the early days, it was enough to simply know how to pilot a drone. Not anymore.

“A lot of people think it’s about learning to fly the drone,” observed Sharon Rosemark of Women and Drones.

“What’s missing is the specific applications and expertise…So really helping people understand that the drone is a tool, but within that there are other applications and other opportunities.”

Below: An InDro Wayfinder drone, which has been used in trials for prescription drug delivery to remote locations

Delivery Drone Canada

INDRO’S TAKE

 

InDro has long been involved with drones (and now robots!) and emergency response. We’ve carried out prescription drug deliveries, Automated External Defibrillator trials, and even shuttled COVID test supplies for an isolated First Nations community at the peak of the crisis. We’ve seen, first-hand, just how valuable these tools can be.

“There’s no question that drones and robots have become essential tools for First Responders,” says InDro Robotics CEO Philip Reece. “It’s also pretty clear that their utility will continue to grow. AI and automation will add both to their value – and to the number of applicable use-cases. We look forward to helping to push the envelope.”

A final FYI: InDro has carried out specialised drone training for First Responders for many years. We are now able to expand that training to include ground robots at the Drone and Advanced Robotics Training and Testing facility at Area X.O in Ottawa (which also features a huge, netted enclosure for drone training and evaluation). If you’re interested, please contact us here.

InDro Robotics, Tallysman partner on precision GNSS solution for ground robots

InDro Robotics, Tallysman partner on precision GNSS solution for ground robots

By Scott Simmie

 

There’s nothing like synergy.

And a new high-precision solution for location and heading – a collaboration between Indro Robotics and Tallysman Wireless – is the result.

As you likely know, while GPS is great – and good enough for us driving around using WAZE – its accuracy can leave something to be desired. Traditional Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) solutions generally are accurate to around 2.5 metres Circular Error Probability (CEP). That means the reported location has a 50 per cent chance of being within 2.5 metres of where it actually is. What’s more, that error rate exists under ideal conditions – with the detection system stationary and with an unobstructed view of satellites.

That’s good enough for a car with a driver, or a cargo ship. But many robotic applications require far greater precision. If you’re running a remote inspection robot using GPS waypoints, 2.5 metres isn’t good enough.

Think about it. In the example of a remote inspection robot, the device is generally operating at the location of a high-value asset. You might want a repeatable routine where the robot can get up close to look at gauges, valves, or anything else requiring inspection. You might want it to pass through a doorway, or get very close to – without touching – a highly energised electrical component. So accuracy matters, whether in this application or many other use-cases.

Now, InDro and Tallysman Wireless, a Calian company, are pleased to announce a solution.

Below: An InDro Sentinel inspection robot

Inspection Robot

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

 

That real estate phrase certainly applies when it comes to high-level robotics. But how do you get from a potential error of 2.5 metres down to, say, 2.5 centimetres – two orders of magnitude?

In this case, the solution came by partnering with Tallysman Wireless.

The company is known for its leading-edge GNSS and Iridium antennas. Tallysman also has an enviable reputation for customising those antennas for global clients seeking specific GNSS solutions. Ships, aircraft, trains and even drones carry out critical missions daily while relying on Tallysman solutions. InDro, meanwhile, is known for its R&D work, robots and custom innovations in the aerial and ground robotics world. So the potential was there for collaboration.

Because – and we know this well – it’s not just as simple as plugging antennas and receivers together and hoping for the best.

Tallysman InDro Backpack

THE ISSUE(S)

 

Antennas – even really good ones – are finicky pieces of equipment. Depending on what you’re mounting them on, they can be subject to interference that diminishes their performance. The type of connector attaching them to a receiver, even the length of the cable used in that connection, can also detract from optimal signal acquisition and accuracy. That’s why you want someone like Tallysman Wireless on board.

“We are experts in Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) solutions, specifically the antennae side of  things,” explains Gord Echlin, Tallysman’s Director of Business Development.

“A lot of people assume, unless you use the term GPS, that it’s a fairly easy thing to implement and get accurate results. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

As Tallysman Wireless explains in a brochure:

“The problem is that keeping the antenna to system interface in the analog domain requires a lot of RF expertise to manage, expertise that is not widely available, and these issues amplify with long signal transmission over cables. Digital systems with built-in LTE communication links, common components of autonomous systems, are direct threats to the integrity of the GNSS signal.

 “Tallysman Wireless has solved this problem by integrating their sensitive, high performance, GNSS antennas in the same package as advanced GNSS receivers, in what is commonly called a ‘Smart’ Antenna. The GNSS processing solution is in compact, carefully engineered to mitigate the potential impairments between the antenna and receiver, and the Position/Navigation/Timing (PNT) information is now communicated to application system over in the digital domain, over a serial interface (UART, USB, CANbus, or Automotive Ethernet).”

Or, as Echlin puts it: “We take the receiver, and we take the antenna and put it in the same package to mitigate the outside interference such that you get less than two centimetres of error. That, along with very precise heading information – with accuracy to 0.3 degree.”

THE INDRO CONNECTION

 

With the Tallysman Wireless integrated solution, there was just one more piece of the puzzle remaining. How to integrate this into a robot? That’s where InDro’s engineering team came along.

The package required a software interface where none had existed before. InDro engineers created a ROS2 coding solution and integrated the Tallysman smart antenna onto our InDro Backpack – which we use with Unitree quadrupeds.

InDro Backpack is our system for remote teleoperations over 5G (and 4G), which also allows for rapid sensor integration and other customization using ROS1 and ROS2 software libraries (which, along with an EDGE computer and high-speed modem, are on-board).

The complete solution – hardware and software – enable consistent, high-accuracy positioning. InDro Plans to offer this complete solution to clients in need of precision positioning.

Below: The Tallysman Smart Antenna solution, integrated with new ROS2 coding into the InDro Backpack

InDro Backpack Tallysman

INDRO’S TAKE

 

We were pleased to partner with Tallysman Wireless on this integration project. With robots increasingly used for remote inspection of high-value assets, accurate positioning and heading data has become essential.

“Being able to tap into the expertise of Tallysman Wireless – and combine their solution with software from InDro engineers – has resulted in a powerful solution,” says InDro Robotics CEO Philip Reece.

“We’ve already begun integrating this onto our own robots, and look forward to offering this to clients in need of the most accurate and reliable positioning possible.”

Looking for more information? Connect with us HERE. And if you happen to be attending TCXpo, the solution is on display September 27 at Area X.O in Ottawa.

TCXpo brings Canada’s Smart Mobility leaders to Area X.O September 27

TCXpo brings Canada’s Smart Mobility leaders to Area X.O September 27

By Scott Simmie

 

Canada’s premiere exhibit and demonstration of Smart Mobility technologies is coming up soon – September 27, to be precise. And InDro Robotics will be one of scores of Canadian companies demonstrating innovative products and processes.

This is the second TCXpo since its inauguration in 2022.

“TCXpo will bring together hundreds of innovators, entrepreneurs, technology developers, industry leaders, regulators, smart mobility partners and stakeholders from Canada’s Capital and across the country,” explains the Area X.O website.

“In partnership with Transport Canada (TC), Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), FedDev Ontario and event sponsors, TCXpo will bring together more than 70 Canadian companies to host live technology demonstrations at Area X.O. TCXpo will create an exclusive opportunity for invited guests to experience the power and impact of cutting-edge Canadian technologies, including many preparing for global markets.”

InDro is pleased to be participating – and we’ve got a lot of cool things lined up for the show.

Here’s a look at a few highlights from last year’s event – including some of the really intriguing technologies on display:

InDro at TCXpo

 

Before we get into what InDro will be up to, it’s worth explaining the name of the event. “TC” stands for Transport Canada, which is a lead sponsor of the event. The regulator is interested, obviously, in the field of Smart Mobility – including drones, autonomous passenger-carrying vehicles and ground robotics. These technologies will all play increasing roles in the future, eventually becoming blended with existing infrastructure and traditional ground and air transportation.

The “X” stands for the location – Ottawa’s Area X.O.

Operated by Invest Ottawa, Area X.O is a research and development complex that is home to some of Canada’s leading R&D companies in the Smart Mobility space (including InDro Robotics). The facility is tailor-made for companies working on next-gen technology, complete with its own 5G network and private roads that can be used by Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. For companies building and testing next-gen technology, there’s nothing like being able to take robots and drones under development directly outside for test runs. It’s routine, when visiting Area X.O, to see all manner of robots and driverless vehicles being tested. It’s also where InDro has located its R&D headquarters, with a large engineering team.

 

WHAT INDRO WILL BE SHOWING

 

We’ve got quite a few things on tap for TCXpo.

We’ll be demonstrating a number of robots InDro has developed, including Sentinel. The teleoperated workhorse has been designed for remote monitoring and surveillance. It’s ideally suited to locations like electrical substations, which are normally located far from urban centres and would generally require a human being to travel to the site for regular check-ups. With robots like Sentinel, an operator can control the robot via a dashboard from hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away.

Thermal and close-up visual inspections can be carried out to look for any anomalies – without the time and expense of dispatching a person. Once the inspection is complete, Sentinel can automatically dock with a wireless charging system so that it’s ready for the next mission.

Though we’ve demonstrated Sentinel in the past, this year we’ll be showing new capabilities with its GPS Waypoint Autonomy software. This enables an operator to set up a repeatable routine using waypoints, allowing Sentinel to carry out missions with a human simply monitoring operations rather than remotely operating them.

Below: Sentinel, equipped with InDro Commander

 

Autonomous Robot

STREET SMART ROBOT

 

This is under wraps until TCXpo, but InDro Robotics will be unveiling a new Smart City robot, specifically designed to help monitor the conditions of bicycle lanes during winter. Whether it’s snow, ice, potholes or debris that might interfere with safe cycling, our Street Smart Robot will be able to detect problems so that city staff can be notified. We’ll be revealing details about this new creation – and you’ll be able to see it first-hand. A number of people have made comparisons with the design to the Tesla Cybertruck; we look forward to hearing your own impressions.

 

INDRO PILOT DEMONSTRATION

 

InDro Pilot is a hardware and software solution that literally gives superpowers to Enterprise Drones with Pixhawk flight controllers. Similar to InDro Commander, the hardware side includes a bolt-on module that contains a powerful EDGE computer, Robot Operating System (ROS1 and ROS2) software libraries, along with USB ports and power supplies to enable the rapid integration of other sensors.

But that’s not all. InDro Pilot has been designed to stream even highly dense data to the ground and cloud securely and simultaneously over 5G networks via a *really* high-speed modem. The software includes an easy-to-use dashboard for both manual and automated flights, including customizable windows for the output of each sensor.

Thinking about Beyond Visual Line of Sight flights? InDro Pilot is ready. Whether the operator is down the block or across the country, operations with virtually zero latency can be carried out over 5G. In addition, InDro Pilot includes a software-defined radio. This allows the automated broadcast of the drone’s altitude and position directly to nearby crewed aircraft over standard RF. In applications for Special Flight Operations Certificates, this capability is viewed as mitigating risk and making BVLOS safer.

Want to integrate additional sensors? No problem. The InDro Pilot software includes drag-and-drop modules for virtually any sensor you can imagine. Even a winch can be added – with the controls ready to go. The screengrab below is taken directly from our software. (If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the capabilities of the InDro Pilot system, you’ll find a comprehensive story here.)

INDRO FORGE

 

The other big development on our end recently has been an expansion. InDro Robotics and Invest Ottawa have formed a strategic partnership that sees InDro Robotics taking over the management and operations of the facility previously known as the Bayview Yards Prototyping Lab. The cutting-edge design and fabrication lab will now be known as InDro Forge – and will expand its offerings to include limited production runs and other specialty one-off fabrication.

The addition of InDro Forge to our portfolio means more options for inventors, entrepreneurs and Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) looking for assistance with the design and production of high-quality prototypes. Clients can literally walk in with a napkin sketch and work with the InDro Forge team toward a polished industrial design, followed by fabrication using some of the specialty on-site machines and processes. Those include:

  • CNC machining
  • Silicone and urethane casting
  • Multi-element 3D printing (including metal)
  • Electronics and Printed Circuit Board fabrication and analysis

Though InDro Forge is located at Bayview Yards, we’ll be talking about its capabilities at TCXpo. If you’re interested in a detailed look, ask us if we can line you up with a tour. (And if you’d like to read about InDro Forge in greater detail, check out this post.)

 

DARTT

 

Plus, don’t forget about DARTT – Canada’s only Drone and Advanced Robot Training and Testing facility. Located at Area X.O, DARTT is designed to put ground robots through tests that conform to the rigorous criteria established by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). There are multiple surfaces designed to challenge agility, Ingress Protection, and incline capabilities. There’s also a huge netted enclosure to safely pilot and test drones, including those with new or experimental features that might normally require an SFOC if flown outside the confines of DARTT.

Team InDro will be running demos at DARTT throughout the day, including offering TCXpo attendees the opportunity to remotely operate a ground robot – and even pilot a drone. InDro operates the DARTT facility, and can also carry out RPAS Flight Reviews and custom training at the site.

If you think DARTT sounds cool, you’re absolutely right. How cool? Well, take a look at this:

 

INDRO’S TAKE

 

TCXpo is a great place to showcase technology, and we’re looking forward to demonstrating our latest innovations. But there’s much more to see than just InDro.

“TCXpo is a tremendous event for Canada’s Smart Mobility space,” says InDro CEO Philip Reece. “Transport Canada, Invest Ottawa and other sponsors really understand the transformative potential of these technologies and want to help showcase the industry-at-large. We’re pleased to participate, along with scores of other companies in this emerging sector.”

It’s actually a pretty big week in Ottawa. The day after TCXpo, Area X.O will host the annual CAV Canada event, a day of demonstrations, knowledge-sharing and networking devoted to Connected and Autonomous Vehicles and the companies that power them. Philip Reece will be hosting a panel at this year’s CAV Canada.

Finally, if you’re interested in attending TCXpo, you can register for free right here.

 

InDro Commander module streamlines robotics R&D

InDro Commander module streamlines robotics R&D

By Scott Simmie

 

Building robots is hard.

Even if you start with a manufactured platform for locomotion (very common in the case of ground robots), the work ahead can be challenging and time-consuming. How many sensors will require a power supply and data routing? What EDGE processing is needed? How will a remote operator interface with the machine? What coding will allow everything to work in unison and ensure the best data and performance possible? How will data be transmitted or stored?

That’s the hard stuff, which inevitably requires a fair bit of time and effort.

It’s that hurdle – one faced by pretty much everyone in the robotics R&D world – that led to the creation of InDro Commander.

InDro Commander

WHAT INDRO COMMANDER DOES

 

InDro Commander is a platform-agnostic module that can bolt on to pretty much any means of locomotion. In the photo above, it’s the box mounted on top of the AgileX bunker (just above the InDro logo).

Commander is, as this webpage explains, “a single box with critical software and hardware designed to simplify payload integration and enable turn-key teleoperations.” Whether you’re adding LiDAR, thermal sensors, RTK, Pan-Tilt-Zoom cameras – or pretty much any other kind of sensor – Commander takes the pain out of integration.

The module offers multiple USB inputs for sensors, allowing developers to decide on a mounting location and then simply plug them in. A powerful Jetson EDGE computer handles onboard compute functions. The complete Robot Operating System software libraries (ROS1 and ROS2) are bundled in, allowing developers to quickly access the code needed for various sensors and functions.

“Our engineering team came up with the concept of the InDro Commander after integrating and customizing our own robots,” says Philip Reece, CEO of InDro Robotics. “We realized there were hurdles common to all of them – so we designed and produced a solution. Commander vastly simplifies turning a platform into a fully functioning robot.”

Account Executive Luke Corbeth takes it further:

“The Commander serves as a “brain-box” for any UGV,” he says. “It safely houses the compute, connectivity, cameras, sensors and other hardware in an IP54 enclosure.”

It also comes in several options, depending on the client’s requirements.

“There are three ‘standard versions’ which are bundles to either be Compute Ready, Teleoperations Ready or Autonomy Ready,” adds Corbeth.

“I’ve realized over time that the value of Commander is our ability to customize it to include, or more importantly, not include specific components depending on the needs of the project and what the client already has available. In reality, most Commanders I sell include some, but not usually all, of what’s in the Commander Navigate. We’re also able to customize to specific needs or payloads.”

Below: Commander comes in multiple configurations

InDro Commander

COMMANDER DOES THE WORK

 

With InDro Commander, developers can spend more time on their actual project or research – and far less time on the build.

“For end-users wanting a fully customized robot, Commander saves a huge amount of time and hassle,” says InDro Engineering Lead Arron Griffiths. “Customers using this module see immediate benefits for sensor integration, and the web-based console for remote operations provides streaming, real-time data. Commander also supports wireless charging, which is a huge bonus for remote operations.”

Commander serves as the brains for several InDro ground robots, including Sentinel. This machine was recently put through its paces over 5G in a test for EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute.

 

5G OPERATIONS

 

Depending on the model, Commander can also serve as a Plug & Play device for operations over 4G or 5G networks. In fact, InDro was invited by US carrier T-Mobile to a 2022 event in Washington State. There, we demonstrated the live, remote tele-operation of a Sentinel inspection robot.

Using a simple Xbox controller plugged into a laptop at T-Mobile HQ in Bellevue WA, we operated a Sentinel in Ottawa – more than 4,000 kilometres away. There was no perceptible lag, and even untrained operators were able to easily control remote operations and cycle between the Pan Tilt Zoom camera, a thermal sensor, and a wide-angle camera used for situational awareness by the operator. Data from all sensors was displayed on the dashboard, with the ability for the operator to easily cycle between them.

Below: T-Mobile’s John Saw, Executive Vice President, Advanced & Emerging Technologies, talks about InDro Commander-enabled robots teleoperating over 5G networks 

 

FUTURE-PROOF

 

Platforms change. Needs evolve. New sensors hit the market.

With Commander on board, developers don’t need to start from scratch. The modular design enables end-users to seamlessly upgrade platforms down the road by simply unbolting Commander and affixing it to the new set of wheels (or treads).

Below: Any sensor, including LiDAR, can be quickly integrated with InDro Commander

Teleoperated Robots

INDRO’S TAKE

 

You likely know the saying: “Necessity if the mother of invention.”

InDro developed this product because we could see its utility – both for our own R&D, and for clients. We’ve put Commander to use on multiple custom InDro robots, with many more to come. (We have even created a version of this for Enterprise drones.)

On the commercial side, our clients have really benefited from the inherent modularity that the Commander provides,” says Luke Corbeth.

“Since the ‘brains’ are separate from the ‘body,’ this simplifies their ability to make the inevitable repairs or upgrades they’ll require. These clients generally care about having a high functioning robot reliably completing a repetitive task, and Commander allows us to operate and program our robots to do this.”

It can also save developers money.

“On the R&D side, the customizable nature of the Commander means they only purchase what they don’t already have,” adds Corbeth.

“For instance, many clients are fortunate enough to have some hardware already available to them whether it’s a special camera, LiDAR or a Jetson so we can support the integration of their existing systems remotely or they can send this hardware directly to us. This cuts down lead times and helps us work within our clients’ budgets as we build towards the dream robot for their project.”

Still have questions or want to learn more? You can get in touch with Luke Corbeth here.