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Robot helpers poised to tackle land, air, sea and living rooms

Travis Manderson, a PhD student at McGill University’s Centre for Intelligent Machines, takes a land-going and airborne robot through a training exercise. (Ivan Semeniuk/The Globe and Mail)

Beside an airstrip on the outskirts of Ottawa a drone is buzzing overhead while a small, four-wheeled rover rolls along in the grass below. Both are robots, equipped with on-board cameras and programmed using artificial intelligence so that they can learn how to track one another and work together as they roam the landscape.

The demonstration, by a team of McGill researchers, is paving the way for future convoys of autonomous airborne and land-based machines that could some day be deployed in remote locations to monitor, transport or assist in search and rescue without the need for constant human supervision.

It’s one of dozens of projects on display this week at a meeting of the Canadian Field Robotics Network. The federal program encourages experts at eight universities across the country to work with participating companies to boost Canada’s expertise in making machines that can handle the unscripted and sometimes unforeseen challenges of operating in the real world.

“Field robotics tends to be a good match for Canada’s strengths,” said Gregory Dudek, a professor of computer science at McGill and the network’s scientific director. “We have a lot of outdoor terrain, a lot of forest, a lot of coastline – a lot of space that has to be managed.”

With a budget of $1-million a year in federal dollars combined with the equivalent in matching funds from industry, the network is now in its fifth and final year. At the Ottawa meeting this week, Dr. Dudeck and his colleagues also hope to strengthen their case for a second phase.

Other demonstrations include drones than can recover after a mid-air collision or follow the hand signals of a human partner on the ground to swoop in and take a photo. A team from the University of Waterloo has developed a self-driving car that can learn to handle winter conditions while Memorial University researchers show their underwater glider that can independently image and monitor approaching icebergs from beneath the waves.

The projects illustrate expertise that Canada has long been known for in robotics circles, including vision systems and machine learning. It also highlights a coming challenge as robotics technology expands beyond industrial applications to play an increasingly visible and central role in day-to-day life.

“The extent to which robotics is going to change our world can hardly be underestimated,” Dr. Dudek said.

He added that with tech giants such as Google and Amazon – not to mention other countries – now investing heavily in robotics, Canada will have to decide to what extent it will be a player or a bystander in the next phase of the technological revolution.

The question may have a bearing on national security if, for example, the Canadian military ends up depending on drones or other types of robots that are developed and manufactured entirely outside of Canada.

But another real-world application much closer to home is the emergence of robots that can help seniors live independently – a growing need that was underscored this week by census data that show Canadian seniors outnumbering children for the first time.

Some of the projects demonstrated at this week’s meeting speak directly to this reality, including a wheelchair that can map out a room using infrared lasers and then navigate to whichever part of the room the chair’s user would like to get to with a single tap on a touch pad.

Another project, developed at York University, showcased an onscreen avatar with life-like expressions and the ability to present appropriate emotions that could serve as an interface between a human and an assisted-living robot.

Stephen Sutherland, president of CrossWing Inc., a Markham, Ont.-based company that specializes in robots for health monitoring and other uses in the home, said that the network has been crucial in connecting him with a circle of researchers working on new technologies that could be applied directly to the needs of Canadian seniors.

“We want to be providing robotic systems to our citizens,” Mr. Sutherland said. “You can’t just walk through a university and discover all these things. What’s better is to have a group of focused people that come together.”