Canadian Manufacturing

Kitchener, Ont.’s Clearpath welcomes a robot uprising

The robot maker has developed software and hardware for robots to replace workers in hazardous conditions

KITCHENER, Ont.—Inside the headquarters of Clearpath Robotics, a robot revolution is underway.

Where a receptionist would have once welcomed your arrival, there’s now a little robot named “Glados” hanging from the ceiling above a vacant table. It scans the waiting room to detect movement and offer its greeting.

On a shelf amongst an assortment of engineering awards, sits “How to Survive a Robot Uprising,” a tongue-in-cheek survival guide for newcomers.

It’s a glimpse of how co-founder and chief executive Matt Rendall envisions the future, as robots change the way people live and work.

“Before the home, our vision is a robot in every company and every job site,” he said. “There are still so many jobs that humans are not well suited to do.”

A recent study from the Boston Consulting Group shows that investment in industrial robots will grow 10 per cent per year in the world’s 25-biggest export nations through 2025—overshadowing the current growth of two to three per cent.

Companies will be motivated by how cost-effective and efficient robots are compared to the human workforce, the study said. It’s estimated that labour expenses can be reduced by 24 per cent in Canada, and cut even further in regions like South Korea and Japan.

Rendall believes that’s where Clearpath comes in, as the Kitchener, Ont.-based company rolls out a fleet of robots to automate what it calls the “dullest, dirtiest and deadliest” jobs in the world, spanning industries like manufacturing, agriculture and the military.

Clearpath has engineered a fleet of heavy-duty yellow and black robots that fit comfortably between the look of a Tonka truck and the character in Pixar’s “Wall-E.”

Some of the robots are equipped to travel across the ground, while others are made for aerial and aquatic operations.

Basic models start at $10,000 before modifications—like mechanical arm extensions, cameras and lasers—bulk up the price. Larger models are closer to $125,000.

Its flagship Husky model is standing in for the Mars rover in a space simulation project run by the University of Toronto and the Canadian Space Agency. Using a remote, the operator drives the model over rough terrain using cameras installed on the machine.

The Kingfisher aquatic model uses two ski-like hulls for balance to navigate across shallow pond surfaces or fast-flowing water.

Clearpath says municipalities could use the robot and sonar technology to monitor sludge buildup in the ponds used to collect storm water.

The company has also developed software and hardware for mining companies to replace workers in hazardous conditions.

The operator, who would have once worked deep below the earth’s surface where humidity levels are high and oxygen levels are low, can now control the machinery from a safer location, Rendall said.

The idea for Clearpath was born six years ago from the disillusionment of four University of Waterloo students who found their 9-to-5 internships lacked creativity and freedom.

When 5 o’clock rolled around, they regularly convened at the university to design their own robot from scratch. Those meetings often stretched way past midnight, fuelled on coffee and energy drinks, Rendall remembers.

While their prototype didn’t win a robotics competition that could have placed them on the radar of international organizations, their idea set the wheels in motion for Clearpath.

Rendall, who admits his strength was not in the actual construction of the robots, was appointed the company’s ambassador to raise money and build a relationship with other Canadian universities.

Within a year and a half, Clearpath had crossed into profitability, helped by a team of engineers who shared the founders’ obsession with robots. The company now has 75 employees at its assembly and design offices in Kitchener and plans to nearly double that number within two years.

Rapid growth of the robotics industry has raised a number of ethical issues, such as concerns the military could use industrial robots for lethal purposes.

Clearpath was the first robotics company to voice its support for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of non-government organizations pushing for an international treaty that bans the use of robots as autonomous weapons.

Unions and other interest groups have also expressed their concern that robots will replace employees in the workforce. But Redall said he believes Clearpath shouldn’t be distracted by how technology could displace existing jobs because the robotics industry is also creating new positions.

“My view is that it’s going to happen, and it’s a question of what country do you want it to happen in?” he said. “I’d much rather the technology be developed, and the economy stimulated, in Canada.”

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