High-tech jobs aplenty in Ottawa – including with InDro Robotics

High-tech jobs aplenty in Ottawa – including with InDro Robotics

Ask someone what they know about Ottawa, and odds are they’ll say it’s home to the Federal Government, multiple world-class museums and the ByWard Market – a destination for locals and visitors alike.

Increasingly, however, the nation’s capital is also becoming known as a high-tech hub. With facilities like the cutting-edge Area X.O – where robotic vehicles and drones are tested daily – Ottawa is becoming something of a technology magnet.

There’s data to back that up. Silicon Valley’s Gigamon recently announced plans to locate a new R&D facility in Ottawa, and the tech sector currently accounts for 11.3 per cent of all jobs in the city.

“When reviewing potential expansion opportunities in North America, we considered a number of attractive options,” Shane Buckley, president and CEO at Gigamon told Invest Ontario. “Ottawa’s diverse workforce and bustling tech community made it the clear choice.”

Taken together, it adds up to jobs.

Below: InDro Robotics engineer Ahmad Tamimi solving problems at Area X.O

Ahmad Tamimi Area X.O

Job alert

 

A new blog post from Invest Ottawa highlights ten Ottawa high-tech companies that have current current job openings – with many of them advertising multiple openings.

Just one example? RideShark – a mobile app that offers multiple and seamless transportation options – has three positions open: Front-End Developer, Mobile App Developer and Business Development Sales Manager

Here’s more about what RideShark does:

Wait – there’s more!

 

In the Invest Ottawa blog about those jobs, there was also an opening highlighted at InDro Robotics. Here’s a screen grab from the blog, which offers some of the details.

Invest Ottawa InDro Jobs

InDro’s Take

 

Well, let’s be honest. We can’t help but be a little biased here.

InDro Robotics is a great place to work. We value team-playing, problem-solving people. Our engineers routinely work together on projects, and also alone – but always within a collaborative atmosphere. We have a diverse group of employees and our retention level is outstanding. Plus, working for InDro is fun: You might be flying a drone one day, or working on a ground robot the next. Trust us on this: No one gets bored.

We have multiple positions open at the moment, including some at our Area X.O location – and others in beautiful British Columbia.

Interested? You can check out the open positions on this page.

InDro Robotics releases “NERDs” White Paper

InDro Robotics releases “NERDs” White Paper

By Scott Simmie, InDro Robotics

We’re pleased to release a White Paper detailing an ambitious and successful project we’ve recently completed.

That project, perhaps appropriately enough, goes by the acronym NERDS – which stands for Network Enhanced Realtime Drone project. It began as a technology challenge issued by the Ontario Centre of Innovation, whose mandate is to “develop and deliver programs that accelerate the development, commercialization, and adoption of advanced technologies to drive job creation.” The project included technical support from Ericsson and access to the ENCQOR network, a test-bed 5G network with a corridor through Quebec and Ontario.

The goal of this challenge? To greatly enhance capability of Enterprise drones and enhance the safety of Beyond Visual Line of Sight flights. The challenge involved designing, building and testing a module that would allow an Enterprise drone to be flown over the 5G network while transmitting even highly dense data in realtime. Some of the more specific goals included:

  • Drone Command & Control (C2) over 5G
  • Transmission of telemetry back to the control station: altitude, speed, compass heading, high-precision GPS, battery level, ambient temperature, barometric pressure, etc.
  • Transmit ultra low-latency, uncompressed 4K video stream via 5G
  • Use a Software Defined Radio to transmit to nearby traditional aircraft that a drone operation in the area is underway

There were other bits and pieces as well, but that sums up the core of the project.

Under the lead of engineer Ahmad Tamimi, InDro got to work. There was a ton of testing, simulations – even mapping out the strength of 5G signals at various altitudes – before we pulled the hardware and software together into a module compatible with any Enterprise drone using a Pixhawk flight controller.

Here’s generation one of that module, which we call InDro Capsule. It’s that black, hexagonal device on top of the drone.

 

InDro Pilot NERDS

Plug & Play

 

We are currently working on a commercial version of InDro Capsule. It won’t be long before we turn this into a product that will enable other Enterprise drones to be flown over 4G and 5G networks. That product will include the Software Defined Radio for alerting private aircraft to drone operations.

There’s actually much more to the system, which integrates into our new software platform, InDro Pilot. One of the more unique features of the InDro Pilot ecosystem is that it will allow Enterprise drone operators to quickly integrate other sensors, simply using a drag and drop interface. You simply select the appropriate module for the desired sensor.

We’re not going to jump into details here, but if you’re like more info about this system you’ll find it here. We will, however, give you a glimpse of how this works by showing you the Winch module:

InDro Pilot Winch

Context

 

Now that you’ve got some background, we’ll get to the White Paper.

Like all White Papers, this one methodically details the scope of the project, the steps that were taken to achieve those goals, as well as the results. If you’re into the fine details of how a challenge like this gets accomplished, you’ll find plenty to interest you. It’s also a testament to the hard work of InDro’s engineering team – and Ahmad Tamimi in particular. Ahmad spent the early months of the COVID outbreak working on this project solo (along with virtual meetings with Ericsson).

The image below gives you a sense of the granular detail contained in the document.

You can download a .pdf of the White Paper here.

NERDs White Paper Excerpt

InDro’s Take

 

At InDro, we love a challenge. And the NERDs project presented us, along with partners Ericsson, a significant one.

We believe the resulting InDro Pilot system (which includes the InDro Capsule module) will enable safer BVLOS flight. The 4K streaming and ultra low-latency enhance situational awareness for the pilot, and the Software Defined Radio will alert neaby aircraft to drone operations in the area. In addition, even dense data can be uploaded directly to the cloud during missions. Just as the InDro Commander offers a plug-and-play solution for customizing ground robots, InDro Pilot will do the same for Enterprise drones on the Pixhawk platform.

We are currently making InDro Capsule lighter and more compact, and look forward to commercializing the entire package in the near future.

Some innovative Canadian tech companies to watch

Some innovative Canadian tech companies to watch

At InDro Robotics, we live and breathe innovation.

Not only do we like creating new products and solutions, we enjoy celebrating when other companies – particularly Canadian companies – build cool things.

InDro Robotics recently took part in a Trade Mission sponsored by NRC-IRAP – the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program. The program involved some 20 companies heading to Portugal for meetings with leading Portuguese innovation companies and agencies, as well as attending the Global Innovation Summit focussed on a sustainable future.

It was a busy, whirlwind week. But one of the highlights was meeting some of the other Canadian companies in the innovation space and learning more about that they do. So we thought we’d take a moment and highlight a few of them.

 

Oneka Technologies

 

See that buoy floating below? It’s pretty special.

Oneka Desalination
The buoy is built by Quebec’s Oneka Technologies. And it can turn sea water into drinking water, using wave power.

The Oneka system consists of buoys tethered just offshore from an area in need of fresh drinking water. The movement of the waves provides the energy to force the seawater through reverse osmosis filters. The result? Fresh water in places that need it most.

As the system performs its extraction, it also produces a brine containing roughly 30 per cent more salinity than the surrounding seawater. That brine is returned to the ocean, but quickly diluted.

Each buoy requires about 10 square metres of space on the ocean, so multiple buoys can be placed within close proximity. Use-case scenarios include communities with limited access to drinking water, natural disasters where the drinking water has been disrupted – and even seaside resorts in need of desalination.

$5.5M funding round

Last year, Oneka announced it had completed a $5.5M funding round led by Canadian investor Innovacorp and American investor Baruch Future Ventures.

“The world is running out of clean water and Oneka has a solution. It works, it’s affordable, it’s better for the environment, and it can be scaled from local disaster relief and regional demand all the way to meeting utility needs,” said Jonathan Saari, investment manager at Innovacorp in an Oneka news release. “It’s exciting to watch the team build and test their world-changing technology…”

The release says the company is working its first two commercial deploments in the US and Chile. Oneka’s solution produces zero CO2 emissions, and a single device can produce up to 10,000 litres of fresh water per week, enough for 450 people.

Earlier this year, Oneka won the US Department of Energy’s Waves to Water challenge, a competition designed to accelerate the development of small, modular, wave-energy-powered desalination systems. The three-year-long challenge netted the company $500,000 US.

Open Ocean Robotics

And here’s another Canadian company doing innovative things on the water.

Open Ocean Robotics is a Victoria-based company that really grabbed our attention during the Trade Mission trip.

Its solar-powered vehicle (with a patented self-righting system), can travel the ocean for months at a time, sending back critical data in real-time. The model seen here is called the Data Xplorer, and the company also has a model that utilizes rigid sails.

Long-term missions, zero emissions

 

The Open Ocean robotics USV is suitable for long-range missions lasting months, with the vehicle capabale of either autonomous or remotely operated missions (pending how remote those missions are). Here’s what Open Ocean says about the device:

“Powered by the sun, it can travel on the ocean for months at a time collecting ocean and environmental data using its suite of sensors.  It sends this information back in real-time through secure communication systems and clients can control the USV from anywhere in the world using our user portal. Capable of travelling in both coastal and open-ocean waters, and with a customizable platform for multiple sensor integration, it offers the ability to understand our oceans in a whole new way.  Data Xplorer is designed to endure all sea states and is self righting.”

Here’s a look at Data Xplorer in action:

This appears to be a thoughtfully engineered system that can be teleoperated where there’s a cellular signal. In more remote areas, missions can be uploaded via satellite. We’re particularly impressed by the unique self-righting system. It relies on buoyancy in that circular structure at the stern, rather than adding weight to the keel (which would reduce efficiency).

And yes, these USVs can capture a *lot* of useful data: This graphic comes from the Open Ocean Robotics website.

Open Ocean Robotics
The company has carried out multiple successful missions to date; you can find case studies here. In December of 2021, Open Ocean Robotics wrapped a $4M seed funding round.

Perhaps even more impressive? CEO Julie Angus, in addition to holding multiple degrees (including a Masters of Science in molecular biology), was the first woman to row across the Atlantic Ocean, from mainland to mainland.

 

ACEL Power

 

The Vancouver-based firm focuses on what’s likely to be a booming market in the years to come: Electric outboard motors. The company says its motors deliver 30 per cent more torque than a comparable horsepower internal combustion engine, plus offer a lifespan five times that of a conventional outboard.

All that, with zero emissions.

The company is about to commence manufacturing, and is now taking pre-orders on 50, 60, 75, 100 and 150-horsepower motors. Motors come with the complete ACEL Power system, including:

  • Engine
  • Battery
  • Inverter
  • Throttle
  • Onboard Computer Screen
  • Keyless start Fob

Here’s a look at a prototype engine in action:

And while ACEL Power’s motors are not inexpensive, the company says they will outperform and outlast conventional motors. ACEL also has its eye on potentially producing a Uncrewed Surface Vehicle using its outboards down the road.

You can find more info – and even pre-order a motor – right here.

 

And finally…

 

A brief look at one more company from the trip (though we wish we had room to highlight them all).

Ashored is not in the robotics space, but it has a very intriguing product that will help prevent sea mammal entanglements and hopefully make life easier for people in the fishery industry who use traps for lobsters, crabs etc.

Normally, those traps are dropped to the bottom and attached by lines to small buoys on the surface. Those lines can often entangle whales and other sea creatures. In fact, if whales are spotted in areas where there are active traps, fishers can be instructed to remove traps until the whales move out of the area.

The Ashored system offers a clever solution. Its MOBI (Modular Ocean Based Instrument) keeps the line on the ocean floor until the fisher returns to collect the gear. The rope and small buoy are contained in a cage that is attached to the other traps. Using an acoustic signal (or timer), a magnetic lock is released and the buoy floats to the surface.

You can check out the system in this excellent video:

InDro’s Take

 

The companies on that recent trip, without exception, had impressive innovations and/or solutions. A lot of them were in the maritime space, where we’re seeing an increased use in robotics both on and beneath the surface.

There’s also a growing emphasis on sustainability, in conjunction with net-zero carbon emissions. There can be no doubt there are good use-cases for wave-powered desalination systems, solar-powered Uncrewed Surface Vehicles, electric outboard motors – and more. We look forward to seeing more from these Canadian companies, as well as the others who were on the trip.

In closing, a quick shoutout to Andrew Bauder, Léonie Hyppolite and Scott McLean from NRC-IRAP for organizing and excellent and productive Trade Mission. Thank you.

Voliro brings a new solution to an old inspection problem with aerial Non-Destructive Testing

Voliro brings a new solution to an old inspection problem with aerial Non-Destructive Testing

By Scott Simmie, InDro Robotics

Imagine, for a second, you’re an engineer responsible for the integrity of an aging water tower. The steel structure is elevated about 10 metres off the ground and is spherical in shape.

From your vantage point on the ground, it appears to be okay. There’s no visible rust, but you’re concerned there could be corrosion beneath the paint.

What are your options? Well, you could send someone up to inspect it visually. Or, better yet, have them take a specialized tool that can precisely measure the thickness of that metal or even the paint or coating on the surface – simply by touching it.

This is known as Non-Destructive Testing, or NDT. In the photo you’re about to see, there’s a ladder leading to a lower-level catwalk. This provides some access for an inspector – but only allows them to examine a fraction of the entire structure.

In order to make a complete inspection you’ll need to look at other options. Will you build scaffolding beneath and surrounding the structure so the worker has a safe platform from which to carry out the measurements? Will you rig them with a safety harness and ropes and lower them from the top of the tank? Might you have them attach the sensor to a super-long stick?

None of these choices are optimal, and the first two involve varying degrees of risk (falls from height are one of the leading causes of death or disability in the workplace). You’ll also have to ensure you’re fully compliant with a host of worker safety regulations – all of which exist for very good reasons. Plus, scaffolding is an expensive proposition and will require about a week for a contractor to put up and then disassemble. And sticks or poles? Well, the longer the reach the more cumbersome and awkward the task.

Take a really good look at the image below. How would you solve the problem? How would you deploy resources in order to get measurements from anywhere on the water tower’s surface? And what about that black semi-sphere at the bottom? Tricky.

Of course, you’d face the same issue if you wanted to spray-paint or apply some other coating to the surface. In fact, it’s the latter issue that the engineers who developed this product initially set out to solve.

(Photo by TheTechnician27, via Wikimedia Commons)

Voliro Non-Destructive Testing Drone

A Swiss solution

Back in 2016, engineering students Timo Müller and Mina Kamel set out to design a drone that could do that kind of work – spraying paint or coatings. They were at Switzerland’s Zürich ETH, a research university that has been a catalyst for a number of successful technology startups.

Working in the ETH Lab, they started from scratch on the project. But as it evolved, they realized there was an even greater need for a drone that could carry out Non-Destructive Testing, which requires that the sensor attached to the flying robot physically touch the surface of the asset being inspected. That asset might be the hull of a ship, the interior of a tall steel tank – even the massive pylons that support high-power transmission lines.

They knew that a standard quadcopter would not be up to the task. Turbulence was one issue. But they also wanted to design a product that could point its sensor anywhere in space – and then make precise contact with pressure.

Picture a drone inside a sphere, with a sensor pointing forward. The Voliro T is capable of directing that sensor anywhere within that sphere, then holding it against the surface with a force of up to three kilograms.

You’ll get a better idea of what we mean in this video. What this drone can do would be impossible for a standard quadcopter. (And yes, it can still paint!)

Multiple advantages…

At first glance, you might think of this as a tricopter. But it’s really very different. First of all, the motors are in a T-5 configuration – with twin rotors on each forward arm and a single rotor for stability in the rear. Traditional tricopters use a Y configuration, with a servo tilting that rear motor for yaw authority. This rear motor is fixed, but the forward motors can be tilted and rotated forward or aft for precise thrust vectoring.

This unusual design means the Voliro T can be stable when pointed in literally any direction in space. Think back to that water tank. This drone could take measurements from the bottom-up, the top-down, and everywhere in between. The design intrigued us enough that we got in touch with Voliro.

“We exist because we want to remove working at height,” explains Chris Udell, Voliro’s Business Development Lead, adding that the Voliro T “is one of the first drones to be designed from the very start to push against a surface.”

That’s not something you can do with a quadcopter, at least not reliably.

“We’ve seen a lot of cowboys where they’ve strapped an NDT sensor to a multirotor,” he says. “Standard multirotors are amazing tools…but what they cannot do is touch a surface reliably and hold position.” That’s because turbulence close to structures can really mess with a stable position hold.

“So multirotors are really the wrong tool for the job. The other advantage is that you can push between two and three kilograms of force on the surface.” That pressure is needed for some of the sensors to get accurate readings – and another reason why long poles are a challenging option. The greater the height, the more difficult it is to apply pressure from below.

Universal payload interface

One of Voliro’s value propositions is the ability to quickly swap sensors, depending on the task.

The Voliro T interfaces with three different NDT sensors, each of which is designed to capture specific kinds of data.

They are:

 

Ultrasonic Flaw Detector
Measures the thickness of materials, including metals, composites and plastics
Electro-Magnetic Acoustic Transducer (EMAT) Thickness Gauge
This one measures the thickness of conductive materials, such as iron or mild steel
ElektroPhysik MiniTest
Measures the thickness of dry films, such as paint or coatings or wraps – even metallic plating (chrome, zinc, nickel)
“Because we’ve got different sensors,” explains Udell, “we have pylon inspections, offshore and onshore storage tanks, wind turbines, commercial ships (and more).”

Years in development

 

We know, from experience, that developing new products is challenging, exhilarating, and time-consuming. Though Voliro is now in the hands of some major early adopter clients, it wasn’t an overnight slam-dunk. The Voliro team, starting with Mina Kamel and Timo Müller – who’s also a former professional Skicross athlete (think motocross on skis) – have been at this now for six years.

That’s some tough slogging. But throughout the evolution of this product, there were regular technological milestones – as well as recognition and funding – that continuously validated the vision. Voliro provided a timeline of the company’s history; it’s impressive.

Voliro NDT Non Destructive Testing Drone

Saves time, money

Of course, none of this effort would have been worthwhile if the final product didn’t offer a clear value proposition. Voliro says its field work has proven, repeatedly, that this system is faster and more cost-effective than traditional methods. In one of its case studies, using the Voliro T saved the installation and tear-down of some 615 cubic meters of scaffolding – which would have required 400 person-hours of labour. Working on a single asset, a pilot and inspector working in tandem can capture about 200 measurements per hour.

In another example, Voliro carried out ultrasonic flaw detection inside a total of five steel tanks – measuring the walls and roofs of the assets. Scaffolding would have been impossible inside this tank, and rope access (dangling an inspector with a handheld sensor) wasn’t feasible. And the old stick method? That’s limited to a height of 12 metres, meaning in this case only limited coverage would have been possible.

The Voliro T completed inspection of all five tanks in just 1.5 days, taking a total of 700 measurement points. Each of those points was geo-referenced and also captured in 4K video. In fact, the Voliro T has two 4K cameras onboard, plus a lot more, as detailed in this company handout:

 

Voliro overview NDT drone

Robot as a service model

As we’re starting to see with a number of specialized drone companies, Voliro is going with a subscription model. Rather than purchase a Voliro T, you lease one. And that, says Udell, comes with a number of benefits.

“It really helps users get their return on the investment quicker. It splits down the initial outlay, so it’s a subscription charge every year.”

And what does a client get for their money?

“We give training, and also offer upgrades. The drone industry is moving very fast…so this idea of using a robot as a service and upgrading the platform as it goes along” means the customer never gets stuck with outdated equipment, nor faces the outlay of an outright purchase.

Companies like Shell and Chevron are part of Voliro’s early adopter program. And, says Udell, “There’s worldwide interest in the device.”

 

InDro’s take

As a research and development company, we have a lot of experience identifying technology gaps and building solutions that previously didn’t exist. We appreciate new approaches, as well as fresh engineering innovations. That’s why companies like Voliro and Canadian NDT drone manufacturer Skyguage catch our attention. They’re also important leaders as the drone market evolves from a sea of standard quadcopters into more specialized, task-specific drones.

“Voliro and Skyguage have taken a fresh look at an old problem,” says InDro CEO Philip Reece. “In doing so, both firms have really pushed the technology in new directions. The end result? More efficient and economical inspections of often complex assets while reducing risk for people.

“These are exciting times in the world of aerial and ground robots. We’ll be seeing a lot more specialized solutions in the future, including more from InDro.”

Stay tuned.

(Image/graphics courtesy of Voliro Airborne Robotics)

Throughout 2022, our friends at Osprey Integrity will be operating the only commercial Voliro unit in Canada. You can find out more about their work on their website.

Skygauge and the rise of task-specific drones

Today, we take a dive into a pretty cool drone company.

That company is Skygauge Robotics. It’s a Canadian firm featuring an innovative drone design purpose-built for highly specialized inspections. It’s unconventional and breaks the traditional quadcopter mold.

And what is that mold? Four fixed motors, four fixed rotors – and a common sensor.

 

Tried and true…

 

With rare exceptions – such as fixed-wing drones and fixed-wing VTOLs for longer-range missions – most drones are variations on the above theme. The quad-rotor design has become the industry workhorse, and rightfully so. Quad-copters (or X8 configurations) are reliable, maneuverable, and they get most jobs done. The main differentiator between these drones, when it comes to use-case scenarios, has been sensors/payload.

End-users tend to either purchase drones with the sensors needed for the job or get a machine that allows you to swap payloads.

For a recreational pilot, that sensor is nearly always a camera. First Responders often want drones with thermal capabilities, allowing them to assess fires or search for missing persons (particularly at night) by identifying their heat signature. Other end-users might require LiDAR, precision agriculture sensors – even molecular sniffers that can detect gas leaks, the presence of toxic chemicals or measure overall air quality. Plus, of course, some operators simply want to move goods, meaning the payload is the cargo itself (though always with a camera).

All good, right? Well, to a point.

Though there’s been a rapid growth in sensors, there are some jobs for which the standard quadcopter design simply isn’t well-suited. Tasks like inspecting ductwork, chimneys, the interior of large pipes or other confined spaces are generally not a great fit for quads. Identifying that shortfall is what led Flyability to create the ground-breaking Elios (and now, Elios 2) drone.

Though technically still a quad, the Elios flies within its own collision-resistant cage, allowing it to go places where other drones cannot. If you haven’t seen it before, check out the video.

Specialized drone designs

 

The point is that, in addition to new sensors, we’re now seeing the development of highly specialized drones for specific applications. The UK firm HausBots is another company with a very different spin on traditional drone design. Its machine can seemingly defy gravity by “sticking” to walls as it climbs them using wheels. It uses rotors to create the pressure differential necessary for it to be held against the wall.

HausBots are being used for visual inspection, Non-Destructive Testing – even tasks like painting. As you’ll see, it gets up close and personal with the surface in a way that would not be possible with a standard quadcopter design:

 

Skygauge Robotics

 

With that context out of the way, we wanted to introduce you to an innovative Canadian company called Skygauge Robotics. It has created a very unique drone intended for very specific applications. Its design is unlike anything else we’ve seen.

And why is that? Well, the motors (and protected rotors) can be vectored to direct thrust. This allows the drone to be positioned in ways that would be impossible with a standard quadcopter design. Instead of simply hovering parallel to the ground, the Skygauge machine can vector its eight motors to allow the drone to hold its position (or maneuvre) while the entire machine is at a pilot-defined angle. This can include even contact with the surface of a structure while remaining in hover.

Before we get into why that matters, just take a look at this short video from Skygauge. Though it has eight motors, this is definitely not a traditional drone design.

The drone reinvented

 

We’ve borrowed that headline from the Skygauge website, along with this definition: “The Skygauge uses patented thrust-vectoring technologyto achieve the most stable and precise flight of any drone yet, making it ideal for carrying out industrial work.”

And, says Skygauge, this design is perfectly suited to a specific type of application: Ultrasonic testing, which requires a probe to make contact with the surface of the object of interest. Check out this video, which shows the Skygauge system in action:

Non-Destructive Testing

 

That probe is using ultrasound to carry out Non-Destructive Testing, or NDT. This kind of testing can measure the thickness of metal walls, protective coatings and more. The Skygauge drone comes equipped with an Olympus 38DL Plus gauge, capable of collecting a wide range of data. With swappable tips on the probe, even the integrity of weld joints or corrosion can be assessed.

In the absense of a suitable drone, such tests would normally have to be carried by a person holding this sensor up against a surface. In sectors like oil & gas or shipping, this requires scaffolding and even expensive shutdowns so that a human being can safely carry out these tests.

The Skyguage system offers massive efficiencies, with many inspections carried out in a single day by a two-person crew – and without requiring mechanical shut-downs. It’s the only drone using this design we’ve seen (though companies like Voliro Airborne Robotics are also in the NDT sphere with new styles of drones).

Funny thing is, the Skygauge drone was not initially designed with these applications in mind.

 

Indro Idea Lightbulb

Cart before the horse…

 

We spoke with CEO Nikita Iliushkin about his company, and how it got started back in 2016. Interestingly, co-founder and Chief Design Officer Linar Ismagilov invented the design before figuring out precisely what the final use-case scenario would be. A Mechanical Engineer, Ismagilov simply knew there would be applications for a drone that could come into physical contact with a surface – and Iliushkin (who attended the Schulich School of Business) could also see the potential:

“At the time, we didn’t know exactly what it would be capable of doing, we just thought it was a cool project to work on,” explains Iliushkin.

Next step? The duo succeeded in finding another Founder (a fortuitous match made via AngelList in seven days).

“That’s literally like finding a partner on any dating site and marrying them within a week,” laughs Iliushkin. “It’s like, technically, that’s possible – but the odds are one in a 1,000, one in 10,000.”

Roadblocks

 

Skygauge Robotics was on its way, though it quickly discovered that even startups with a great idea can face challenges when it comes to attracting capital.

“No investors would fund us – so we initially funded the first prototype on our student loans,” continues Iliushkin, who had luckily invested in Bitcoin. He cashed out his stock in late 2017 and put all of it in the company.

With that capital, Skygauge built its first flying model and was able to start testing the capabilities of the product. One thing was immediately clear.

“This design had radically different capabilities that other drones do not,” he says.

 

A solution in search of a problem

 

Its maneuverability and ability to make contact with a surface meant this drone would be a good fit for a variety of aerial tasks, including painting or even power-washing. But as Ismagilov refined the technical elements, Iliushkin focused on exploring business use-cases, looking to find the niche that might best suit this highly unusual design. It was during this phase that he discovered Non-Destructive Testing (NDT) using ultrasonic sensors. They knew they had a fit.

“The same way that doctors use ultrasound to see inside of people, drones can use ultrasound to see inside of metals,” explains Iliushkin. The team quickly realized its drone could be used for this kind of inspection on virtually any metal infrastructure – everything from offshore drilling platforms to ships to petroleum refineries.

“What we found was that drones today can’t do this and apply consistent force to take these readings. So drones have largely not seen adoption in this contact-based work.”

As the company’s website explains:

“Large challenges exist in the NDT industry surrounding worker safety and high-cost inspections. Using a drone would eliminate worker risk, cut downtime, and reduce costs associated with equipment rental. Thus, the Skygauge was conceived. With the help of CTO Maksym Korol, the drone’s engineering was refined and advanced. Together, the three founders assembled a team of highly capable engineers and set out to revolutionize the industrial inspection industry.”

And some of those inspection jobs? Using people, they can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in scaffolding, shutdown costs and protective gear. Skygauge Robotics could disrupt the old way of doing things.

 

A ringing endorsement

 

The Skyguage Robotics team approached Dave Kroetsch, the former President/CEO/CTO of Aeryon Labs – which designed and manufactured high-performance UAS for military, public safety, and critical infrastructure inspection. Aeryon was purchased by FLIR in 2019 for $200 million, and Kroetsch was looking to share his expertise with other startups.

Though Kroetsch was actively assisting startups in other tech spaces, he wasn’t particularly looking to jump back into the drone world. But once he heard the pitch from Skygauge Robotics in late 2019, he could see the company was definitely onto something.

Instead of just another quadrotor, Vertical Takeoff and Landing craft that had been done 10 ways till Sunday…These guys came with a platform that was different, funded well enough that they could actually execute,” Kroetsch tells us.

He could also see, in this startup, echoes of the early Aeryon days – which resonated with him.

“I continue to tell the stories, regale the new startups about the challenges of making things fly and how much harder it is than things that operate on the ground,” he says. “When your code crashes and the drone crashes, it’s not just like it just sits there and stops working: It falls out of the sky and crashes spectacularly or flies away or something of that nature. So it’s definitely a hard business.”

Kroetsch has expertise not only as an engineer, but also a highly successful entrepreneur. He knew that the current enterprise market for standard quadrotor drones was pretty much saturated – and that significant money would not materialize for simply another variation on a theme.

But the Skygauge team had something new. In fact, so new and innovative that CEO Iliushkin and Chief Design Officer Ismagilov were singled out for recognition on the Forbes 30 under 30 list.  

“What they had was something very innovative. I’d seen the simplicity of a quadrotor design, but also the limitations. And that limitation is being able to do that (contact) work at height,” explains Kroetsch. “For me this is a capability that opens up a whole new swath of opportunity.”

(Here’s Dave, below, in a screengrab from our interview.)

A huge market

 

Skygauge Robotics could see there was a huge potential market. Kroetsch quickly realized this, as well. And when he accompanied the Skygauge Robotics team to a recent conference for the oil & gas sector in Texas, the reaction from the convention floor confirmed it. People came to the booth throughout the show, saying this was precisely the kind of solution needed.

And, says Kroetsch, he’s continuing to learn of more use-cases for the Skygauge product.

“One is doing tank inspection inside of tanker ships,” he says.

“Today they’ll drain the oil out of tank, then actually fill it with water, and put a boat in it and put inspectors on that boat as they take measurements and whatnot from the inside. As you can imagine, this is generating thousands of gallons of contaminated water, at a cost of millions of dollars to deal with this in an environmentally friendly manner. So to be able to go and do some of these applications in some of these environments without the environmental footprint I think is really, really valuable.”

Kroetsch says the documentation and governance he saw when coming on board was also quite “mature” for a young startup, likely owing to CEO Nikita Iliushkin’s business training.

And it’s that business head that has Skygauge Robotics opting not to sell its product the traditional way.

 

Leasing model

 

Skygauge is now taking orders (and deposits) from customers interested in leasing its drones on an annual basis. We’ve seen this model with Percepto, and suspect it will grow in popularity – particularly for highly specialized drones. Under the leasing model, customers will receive upgrades as the technology improves.

Dave Kroetsch believes it’s the best approach for both the company and its customers.

“One of the benefits of a leasing model comes from the continuous improvement and change in technology. It makes sense (to purchase outright) when you’re buying a dump truck; that dump truck is going to operate exactly the way you need it to for the next 15 years, whatever your useable life of the vehicle is. An asset like this is very different. You’re going to want the continuous improvements that are coming.”

 

Coming soon

 

Skygauge Robotics is now on the fourth iteration of its NDT drone and is gearing up production to start shipping to customers, likely in Q1 2022. Kroetsch is not only confident in the capabilities of this product, but believes we’ll see more and more highly specialized drones come to market in future.

“Absolutely,” he says. “Indisputably. What we will see going forward in the (drone) industry at large is specialization of manufacturers and of products tailored to a specific market.” 

Skygauge CEO Iliushkin knows the market is there. He’s done an immense amount of research over the years, learning along the way that most refineries and offshore oil platforms etc. have already adopted the standard quadcopter for visual inspections. But their maintenance crews and engineers, he says, have been clamouring for an NDT solution.

“The drone industry has reached an inflection point for drones for visual inspection. The next leap is going to be in this ultrasonic testing space.”

And Skygauge Robotics? It’s ready for contact.

 

InDro’s view:

 

As a company focused on engineering and R&D, InDro Robotics celebrates innovation. We’re pleased to see the progress Skygauge Robotics has made – and also applaud that this is a Canadian company.

Because we build our own specialized solutions for end-users, we also agree with the assessments from Kroetsch and CEO Iliushkin: The future of drones and robotics will become increasingly specialized, with task-specific products for the markets and clients that require them. (That’s why we’ve developed products like ROLL-E and Commander.)

We wish Skygauge Robotics all the best – and look forward to seeing this unique piece of engineering in action.

When it comes to Last Mile, InDro’s ROLL-E delivers

By Scott Simmie, InDro Robotics

 

Picture this: You’re expecting an important delivery at home.

But instead of peeking out the window to spot a cargo truck or van, you’re awaiting a text. One minute before delivery, your phone pings with a notification and a QR code.

You look outside and see it approaching: A small robot. It pulls up directly in front of your steps (possibly even climbs the steps). You head outside and present your QR code to a reader on the robot. Once it has scanned to confirm, the lid protecting the cargo bay unlocks and slides open. You remove your package and go back inside. Before you’ve even closed the door, the robot has already moved on.

The transaction was rapid and contactless. The robot did not emit any CO2.

A decade ago, such a scenario would have sounded a bit like sci-fi. Not anymore. Such deliveries are coming – and not solely for the purpose of convenience.

InDro ROLL-E

Some context

 

On any given day, on any given street in North America, a large truck or cargo van is likely to come down the road. Inside? Groceries, clothing, electronics, books and more – on their way to people’s homes and businesses.

Even prescription medications are delivered by many pharmacies – which can be particularly helpful for those who may have mobility issues or lack access to transportation. Deliveries are now so ubiquitous that these vehicles have become part of the urban landscape.

But while deliveries have grown exponentially over the past couple of decades, so too have concerns about the efficiency – or inefficiency – of this approach. And that conversation now focuses on something known as the Last Mile.

That, and the potential for robots to become part of a cleaner and more cost-effective solution.

 

The Last Mile

 

The Last Mile phrase refers to the final, critical but inefficient phase of any delivery: Getting the product down that last path to its ultimate destination. That destination is most often the home of a consumer. But it might be to a client, waiting for just-in-time parts. Ultimately, it could be anything, to anyone, anywhere. And with the global pandemic, demand for delivery of everything from soup to nuts to meals has skyrocketed.

Currently, nearly all these deliveries are carried out by vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. It’s one thing to load up a truck with parcels headed from a warehouse in a suburb to, say, Toronto. That part of the voyage can be fairly efficient, because there’s a large volume of goods all initially headed in the same general direction. But things become far less efficient once that truck starts heading down scores of residential streets. Things slow down, more fuel is burned, and costs add up.

Here’s how Business Insider describes the problem:

“In a product’s journey from warehouse shelf, to the back of a truck, to a customer doorstep, the “last mile” of delivery is the final step of the process — the point at which the package finally arrives at the buyer’s door. In addition to being a key to customer satisfaction, last mile delivery is both the most expensive and time-consuming part of the shipping process…

That “last mile” is more costly than you might realize.

“As a share of the total cost of shipping, last mile delivery costs are substantial — comprising 53% overall. And with the growing ubiquitousness of “free shipping,” customers are less willing to foot a delivery fee, forcing retailers and logistics partners to shoulder the cost. As such, it’s become the first place they’re looking to implement new technologies and drive process improvements.”

 

Delivery by drone

The image above is from trials InDro Robotics carried out with London Drugs, Canada Post, and Country Grocer on Salt Spring Island. We demonstrated how delivering medications can save time – and potentially lives – by getting prescriptions quickly to people in remote communities. In some of these deliveries, the consumer would have had to travel by hours and take ferries to pick up medications that were delivered in minutes. In the case of products like an Epipen, or Narcan (used to save lives during opioid overdoses), minutes and even seconds can count.

In fact, InDro was a Canadian leader in delivering COVID-19 tests by drone, allowing health care providers on an island-based First Nations community to remain at their clinic – rather than travelling a full day to deliver and pick up test kits. (You’ll find our story on this here.)

But while drones can receive regulatory permission for these kinds of remote flights, we’re still some ways off from routine aerial deliveries to consumers in urban areas. The world of Advanced Air Mobility is certainly coming (see our deep dive into the topic here), but the regulatory landscape will take time to ensure that crewed and uncrewed aircraft can routinely (and safely) share the same airspace when it comes to cities. 

We’ve all seen the exciting vision of drones flying packages right to your doorstep, but in many cases it’s not the best solution,” explains InDro Robotics CEO Philip Reece.

“Ground robots can bring many of the same solutions with no impact on airspace – and due to their compact size they can utilize existing infrastructure. I’m confident in the future we’ll see drones and ground robots enabling delivery by working in unison, but that will take some time.”

And that brings us to UGVs, or Uncrewed Ground Vehicles. Specifically, an InDro-developed delivery product we call    ROLL-E.

 

ROLL-E delivers

 

ROLL-E has been designed by InDro’s engineering team to be part of the Last Mile solution. And there are very specific reasons why the company has chosen to develop this product.

First of all, UGVs are not subject to the same regulatory framework as aerial vehicles, so UGVs can be deployed in urban centres now. In fact, a company called Tiny Mile is already delivering meals in Toronto with its “Geoffrey” platform – and was just featured in this McLean’s magazine article. Though Geoffrey gets a lot of attention from curious pedestrians, this kind of delivery will become commonplace in the years to come. Plus, as noted earlier, we’re in an era of unprecedented global demand for deliveries – coupled with mounting concern over the environment and greenhouse gas emissions. The time is right for a green and efficient solution.

And that’s where ROLL-E fits in.

ROLL-E AgileX Scout 2.0

ROLL-E is built on the AgileX Scout 2.0 platform. But that’s only the beginning. While platforms like the rugged and reliable Scout are great, they require software and hardware – and generally a lot of tweaking – to transform them into fully-functioning robots.

We did that by integrating another InDro innovation that we call ROS-IN-A-BOX, or RIAB. You can read all about RIAB here, but the key point is that it’s a hardware/software solution that relieves the end user of the tedious task of integrating the Robot Operating System software, plus any other hardware or sensors (such as cameras), and getting them all to work properly together.

With RIAB built in to ROLL-E, the customer has a solution onboard that will allow them to begin running remote deliveries via cellular connection. They simply drive ROLL-E using a gaming controller while watching its path, in real-time, from a remote location via a browser-based console.

Simple to operate

 

ROLL-E is a snap to operate – whether you’re across town or across the country. (In fact, during one recent internal company demo, an InDro employee who had zero background with ROLL-E operated a mission at our Area X.O location in Ottawa from her home in Vancouver.)

UGVs have lower barriers to entry than UAVs for deliveries,” explains Luke Corbeth, an InDro Account Executive specializing in UAV and UGV solutions with a specific focus on delivery.

“They can be setup and deployed quickly, don’t require certified operators and have notably less regulations – this means deliveries can happen anytime at a moment’s notice.”

And throughout the delivery, the robot operator can see what ROLL-E sees, in real-time. The screengrab below was taken from the console while running a demo at our Area X.O facility in Ottawa.

ROLL-E Ella

With ROLL-E’s ample and insulated storage, its top compartment can be divided in two, allowing (for example) for the shipment of frozen goods on one side of the center divider, with non-refrigerated goods on the other. Or, in cases with larger objects, the divider can be removed entirely. This is InDro’s second-generation ROLL-E.

ROLL-E Scout 2.0 AgileX

Accessible, but not autonomous

 

As noted, ROLL-E requires a human operator with eyes on the road. And while ROS-in-a-BOX platforms are AI capable, this is not an autonomous vehicle.

“It’s critical that it’s not misconstrued as autonomous in any way,” says Engineering Manager Arron Griffiths. “ROS-in-a-BOX is autonomous capable – it has the capacity to put autonomous software on it. But the real core advantage here is the ability to carry teleoperation over 4G and 5G networks.”

In other words, as long as there’s a cellular network at each end, ROLL-E can be operated remotely from anywhere.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that InDro won’t make a fully autonomous product using a LiDAR sensor, SLAM (Simultaneous Localization And Mapping) and obstacle avoidance down the road. It simply means that for this road,    ROLL-E is ready to go.

And – seriously – you could learn how to operate it in an hour. (It also features wireless charging, so no plugging in or battery removal required.)

 

ROLL-E RIAB Scout 2

Building simple solutions

 

That concept, of doing the heavy technical lifting so that end-users can deploy a simple and pain-free solution, is at the core of InDro’s R&D philosophy: Build innovative things that work reliably and are easy for the end-user to operate.

“We develop specialized robotic solutions for our customers so they can do what they do best and then simply add our solution on to their existing transportation options,” says Philip Reece.

“InDro looks to make using ground robots easy. Working together we can make the end customer experience easier, more convenient and even fun. Who wouldn’t want their groceries delivered right to their door by a friendly robot?”

Or anything else, for that matter.

 

InDro’s view

 

Robots are already beginning to play a role in the Last Mile solution. This is particularly true in China, where robotic vehicles making deliveries are becoming commonplace in cities like Shenzhen. And they’re already making inroads in North America, with even Amazon running trials.

Like ROLL-E, the Amazon robot has been designed to make Last Mile deliveries more efficient, while using current infrastructure (sidewalks, crosswalks, even paths through parks) without being obtrusive.

Products like ROLL-E will play a significant role in the future both by delivering securely and safely – and helping to ease the burden of that last, critical mile.

If you’re interested in what ROLL-E might do for your company, you can get more information (and possibly even drive it remotely!) by contacting Luke Corbeth here.