Robotics: the future of procurement

By Tyler Hooper

Robots. They’re taking over.

Well, not exactly, but the industry of robotics – the design, construction, operation and applications of robots – sure is.

Startup companies are budding all across Canada and the U.S., all hoping to cash in on robotics’ potential capital and technological growth. The robotics boom is taking place all over the globe with emerging markets in Asia, Europe and North America. The industry is already worth hundreds of millions (some speculate even billions) and its growth show no signs of slowing.

When it comes to the military, the rise of the robotics industry is introducing some new and innovative technology. Numerous reports indicate the U.S. military is working on an “Iron Man” style suit and has invested heavily in drone and UAV robotic technology.

Reports say the U.S. military has been developing a robotics suit that is similar to the one depicted in the popular Marvel Comic "Iron Man" movies. 

Reports say the U.S. military has been developing a robotics suit that is similar to the one depicted in the popular Marvel Comic "Iron Man" movies. 

The industry is also taking off in Canada, with startups springing up in Ontario and B.C. When it comes to the Canadian Armed Forces, however, question still remain about the potential for procuring such new technologies against a backdrop of spending cuts and long-overdue procurement deals.

A rising industry

Fuelled by innovation and capital, the robotics industry is growing at a steady rate. Some analysts have even suggested it is one of the fastest growing markets of the last decade. It comes as no surprise that companies like Google have partnered with robotics companies, while new businesses looking to break into the industry have scrambled to raise venture capital to cash in on this gold rush.  However, as the technology becomes smaller in size and more sophisticated, companies are scrambling to harvest the potential technological break-throughs and the potential profits.

“Every industry around the world is looking for a way to leverage this new powerful technology that is robotics and use it to optimize their operations,” says Adam Gryfe, Senior Business Development Manager at Clearpath Robotics, based out of Kitchener, Ontario.

What produced this boom? Gryfe suggests the industry was able to get off the ground thanks to initial investments by militaries.

“Typically, technological innovation starts with the army, as it has the most amount of money when it is war time,” says Gryfe. “What happens is the army can spend the up-front capital to invest in the early stages of the technology like robotics, and then as it becomes more mature through that effort it can be applied through more industries around the world.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. War creates industry and demand, which, in turn, creates production and often innovation. So, does this growing industry have a place assisting the CAF? More importantly, does the Canadian government and the CAF have the budget to invest in it? The war in Afghanistan may be over, but with Canada signed on for another year fighting ISIS, it looks as though we will have a presence in the Middle East for while yet. Robotic technology, if acquired, could help in this effort and even help create jobs and promote economic growth domestically.

 Military procurement

The CAF is currently moving away from robotic procurements due to budget and procurement restraints, says Jeremy Byatt, Chief Operating Officer at ING Robotic Aviation.

A helicopter UAV from ING Robotics.

A helicopter UAV from ING Robotics.

ING Robotics creates primarily Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which were used by the Canadian Army in Afghanistan. ING has two primary UAV systems, the Serenity and the Responder. Both sophisticated UAV technologies serve different purposes, but are at the forefront of UAV technology.

ING Robotics recently completed a two-week long mission to board an ice-breaking cargo ship in the arctic. The mission’s purpose was to monitor the operational aspects of naval UAV ice monitoring.

A January 2015 report by the Conference of Defence Associates Institute and the MacDonald-Laurier Institute outlined numerous problems surrounding the military’s procurement process and found that many of the problems stemmed from larger projects like fighters, helicopters and warships. These larger projects have left little room for smaller potential contracts, such as those that consist of robotic technology.

Some also point the finger at the Harper government which have perpetuated a backlog of procurement deals. Cuts to both the CAF and Department of Defence have also limited research and development opportunities.

Another reason the robotics industry seems to be bypassing the military is the end of Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan. With the war over, some defence and technology contractors have started looking for contracts in the public and private sectors, rather than with the Harper government. 

Byatt says that with the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, ING has had to look at other business opportunities with civilian and private contractors. Byatt also suggested that with defence budgets being cut the military are less inclined to purchase expensive technology, “The military is the only area where technology keeps getting more expensive,” he adds.  

Robotics technology is advancing rapidly, with new products being tested and created on an annual basis. A prime example would be the advancement of drones and UAV’s over the last few years. However, this is problematic for the military, as the armed forces tend to have longer procurement processes. “If you have a 10-year procurement process you’re buying 10 year old technology,” says Byatt. 

He suggests one reasons the CAF has been slow to procure robotics technology is the military’s interest in investing in larger scale projects, such as the next generation fighter jet. Despite the technology having such an impact on business, Byatt suggested the military world is having a difficult time adapting to its growth.  

Some Robotics companies say the Canadian Armed Forces are showing more interest in procuring the next generation fighter jet, and interest in robotics and UAV is waning. 

Some Robotics companies say the Canadian Armed Forces are showing more interest in procuring the next generation fighter jet, and interest in robotics and UAV is waning. 

In recent years, procurement failures have become endemic. Some of the most well-known examples include the purchase of the F-35 joint-strike fighter, the delay in acquiring offshore arctic patrol ships and the government’s refusal to upgrade the aging Lee-Enfield 303 rifles currently being used by Canadian Rangers in the arctic.

With regards to robotics, Byatt said that the army currently uses the Raven, a small hand-held UAV system, but to his knowledge the navy and air force aren’t using large-scale robotics products.

ING Robotics primarily creates UAVs, which during the mission in Afghanistan, were supplied to the CAF. Although the war in over, “the Canadian military has a role, militaries have a role, in commercial economic development,” says Byatt.

There’s also the possibility of such technology being used in future conflicts, including the recently extended mission against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Robotics may be useful for reconnaissance and surveillance.

Canadian companies

Although some believe the CAF isn’t taking full advantage of the robotics industry’s potential, this doesn’t mean Canadian companies aren’t working with the government and CAF to develop robotic technology.

Canadian robotics companies are currently working with the CAF and defence contractors. MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA), a Richmond, B.C.- based global communications and information company, is in the early stages of research and development of robotics technology with potential military applications.

“The main reason for using robots is basically to reduce the exposure to responders who have to go to a [hazardous] scene,” says Piotr Jasiobedzki, a Product Development Manager and Staff Scientist at MDA’s Brampton, Ontario branch.

Jasiobedzki says MDA is currently in the early in stages of development, focusing primarily on prototypes that can be used to help assess and observe harsh or dangerous environments. Although he acknowledged the obvious military applications of such technology, he pointed out that there is a lot of potential for these devices to be used by first responders and law enforcement agents.

MDA is also currently working on larger projects such as nuclear automation and space exploration. MDA’s robotics systems have been used in NASA’s Mars rovers. They have also worked on both Canadarm1 and 2, large robotic space arms that have assisted in repairing satellites and moving astronauts and cargo. 

 “Now that we’re transitioning to more of a peace time, the robotics organizations are able to take that investment and turn into something meaningful for the broader population,” says Adam Gryfe of Clearpath Robotics.

Clearpath is a perfect example of a company that has seen rapid growth since it started five years ago. They went from a team of four to 100 and now have approximately 500 customers. They’re also one of the first companies in Canada to openly come out against “killer robots”.

“We have a very strong position against the use of autonomous killer robots, which means we don’t support robots being able to end a persons life without a human in the loop,” says Gryfe. “The robot can’t pull the trigger so to speak.”

One of Clearpath's  unmanned ground vehicles - the Grizzly. 

One of Clearpath's unmanned ground vehicles - the Grizzly. 

Clearpath primarily deals with defence contractors and has also been contracted by the U.S. Army to build the Jackal, an unmanned ground vehicle used for urban reconnaissance. Clearpath builds other unmanned ground vehicles, including the Grizzly and the Husky, both of which can carry different payloads and serve a variety of purposes on the ground. They also build UAVs and a robotic unmanned water vessel that’s primarily used to gather data.

Gryfe says currently most robotic technology used by the military focuses on ordnance disposal. Autonomous systems are still very much an emerging technology. He says robotics technology has an application in any high-risk environment. “It’s not just about war,” he says.

The robotics industry is in no danger of slowing down, says Gryfe. “I think that in a few years you’ll see that it is as prevalent, maybe not quite the Internet yet, but certainly personal computers, that’s where the industry is going.”

When it comes to the CAF, though, there are still a few hurdles to jump. Budgets, procurement troubles, the end of the Afghan War, and slashed spending are all major obstacles when it comes to the military acquiring any new technology. But these hurdles shouldn’t stop the CAF from seriously considering the benefits of this technology to its army, navy and air force. 

“Even though the war time efforts are decelerating I would say that there is still a huge opportunity in the military, like there is in every industry, in using robotics to optimize their operations,” said Gryfe.