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.

The Forgotten Frontier

By Tyler Hooper

In August 2014 Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke to troops on Baffin Island the day after the Canadian Armed Forces took part in Operation NANOOK, its annual northern military operation: “In Europe we see the imperial ambitions of Vladimir Putin (speaking to the conflict in Ukraine), who seems determined that, for Russia’s neighbours, there shall be no peace … And because Russia is also Canada’s neighbour, we must not be complacent here at home.”

Currently, conversations of the CAF tend to focus on the Middle East and combating terrorist groups like ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). However, in recent years countries like the U.S., Denmark, Norway, Russia and even China have attempted to lay claim to various ridges and boundaries around the North Pole. As a result, there has been some discussion amongst academics and politicians on how important preserving Canadian sovereignty in the north is, with most rhetoric looking at the perceived threat of foreign incursions from other nations, such as Russia, who have made several aggressive gestures, including planting a Russian flag near the North Pole in 2007.

This perceived Russian “threat” has led some to discuss the role of the CAF in protecting Canadian Arctic sovereignty and what should, or can, be done to improve Canada’s presence in the north. Is the CAF and current federal government doing enough to ensure Canada can protect its northern waters, resources and citizens? Are foreign incursions from countries like Russia really a threat, or are there other hazards to Canada’s north?

The Threat(s)

Michael Byers, a professor of global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia, says that it is undoubtedly true that the Arctic will play a greater role in Canada’s interests in the future: “Well, I think, the simple answer is it is going to play a much greater role, just because of the reality of climate change.”

Colonel (retired) Pierre Leblanc, who commanded the Canadian Forces Northern Area from 1995 until his retirement in 2000 and who now operates Arctic Security Consultants, explains why the north has become an international hot spot in recent years: “What has changed in the Arctic is in the past — when the Arctic was frozen basically all year round — it was basically a no-go-area; it was just too challenging to go there, and expensive. But with global warming more and more of the Canadian Arctic is opening up … and there is a lot of oil and gas in the Arctic.”

In essence, because of climate change, parts of the Northwest Passage (NWP) will open up due to the melting and thawing of ice, which will lead to opportunities for mining operations to extract these resources and this, in turn, will create more shipping traffic in the Arctic’s waterways. These factors, mixed with Russia’s aggressive gestures in the north, have some worried that the CAF is ill equipped to monitor and protect Canada’s northern land and waterways.  

Supplies out on parade during NOREX 2015.

Supplies out on parade during NOREX 2015.

Byers doesn’t see Russia as being an imminent threat towards Canada: “I don’t see any military problems between Canada and Russia, at least not ones that start in the Arctic.” But he elaborated that there are other potential problems Canada needs to prepare for: “The security challenges in the Arctic remain in a non-state character: illegal immigration, smuggling, the possibility of a rogue oil tanker trying to use the Northwest Passage and causing an oil spill …”
Leblanc echoed a similar sentiment suggesting that “The biggest threat we have to the Canadian Arctic (speaking as a retired joint task force commander) is to the environment and ultimately to the people … As more and more traffic increases … we want to make sure that whoever comes into the Arctic comes in under our rules and regulations …” Leblanc also suggested that because of the fragile nature of the northern food chain, avoiding an environmental disaster is imperative for the people, animals and wildlife that inhabit the region.

Auriel Braun, a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto, said he also concurred that protecting the North’s fragile eco-system was undoubtedly important, but he also cautioned that Russia’s presence in the region cannot be entirely ignored.
“We are facing a Russia that has become extremely assertive and some would even suggest aggressive,” said Braun, adding that in recent years Russia has opened old military bases and is building new ones, many in its northern region.

In recent years Russia has also increased its military spending, with approximately 4.2 per cent of its GDP going towards military expenditures; in comparison, Canada’s military spending has decreased. Currently, Canada annually spends approximately 1 per cent of GDP on military procurement.

“There is a danger of an escalation [due] to Russian recklessness,” Braun cautioned. “That means we need to have forces up north, they have to be well trained and properly equipped.”
Whether the real threat is a foreign power, such as Russia, or an environmental disaster, many agree that more equipment, technology and manpower need to be directed towards Canada’s north. If this is the case, what should the CAF and Canadian government focus on procuring?

The Future of Canadian Military Procurement

Byers suggested that the CAF still needs to find more efficient and cost-effective ways to send troops and resources to the area in a timely matter. “I would actually argue that we have the equipment, we just don’t deploy it to the Arctic as much as we should,” said Byers. Overall, he attributed cost and logistics as two of the major hurdles to procurement and deployment of troops and equipment.  

Byers added that, although there are currently 14 search and rescue (SAR) helicopters in the country, most are stationed on either the West or East Coast, leaving the north vulnerable. Moreover, despite the Canadian military having close to 5,000 Rangers stationed in the north, they are ill-equipped; one example being Prime Minister Harper’s broken promise to replace the Rangers’ aging Enfield rifle with something more modern.

Setting-up a tent during NOREX '15.

Setting-up a tent during NOREX '15.

There has also been discussion around Canada’s desperate need to acquire proper icebreakers and vessels to patrol the Arctic waters. Prime Minister Harper has faltered on his 2005 promise to have several new Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers built. This has left vessels like the aging icebreaker the Canadian Coast Guard Ship (CCGS) Louis St. Laurent, which was brought into service in 1969, patrolling Canada’s north. There are approximately five other “functioning” Coast Guard icebreakers in service, with only one new ship, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, scheduled to be built in the coming decade as part of the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS).
Braun agreed that more Arctic patrol vessels and a proper, newer icebreaker fleet would be ideal for patrolling Canada’s north. “We need to move up on acquiring icebreakers that are effective, and acquiring first-generation aircraft,” said Braun.

The Harper government has yet to commit to a permanent plan to replace the aging CF-18s, flip-flopping on whether Canada will acquire the next-generation fighter jet, the F-35. The Joint Strike Fighter has proved controversial as many suggest its single-engine capabilities would be troublesome in the event of engine failure while on a long patrol over Canada’s desolate north. In addition, a recent report released by the Department of National Defence estimates Canada would end up paying approximately $46 billion dollars for 65 F-35s, which is far from the original estimated cost.  

So what should the Canadian government and CAF be doing to ensure Canada can protect its people, waterways and northern habitat?

Braun stressed that although we are not in another Cold War with Russia, “We, of course, need to be proactive … Sadly I would like to see more spending on education rather than defence, but in order to protect education in Canada we need to have a proper defence and that’s a reality.”

Leblanc stressed that Canada needs to be able to monitor foreign vessels coming in to Canadian waters to ensure they have proper equipment, such as spill kits and double hulls, while continuing to “increase our ability to monitor the Arctic … I recommended a number of years ago that we deploy high frequency surface wave radars at the choke points, the entry points, of the Canadian Arctic to make sure that we know who is coming in and what the condition of those ships are,” said Leblanc.

Ultimately, Byers said cost is the biggest hurdle in properly procuring military equipment for our northern forces, but also suggested our politicians and leaders need to recognize the importance of the north.

“This is not difficult, it is simply a questions of political will,” stated Byers. “And recognizing that the Arctic is important enough that we should spend the money necessary to be there … One of the ironies is the more often you send them (CAF troops), the better they get at it and that, in turn, reduces the cost the next time around … If you don’t train there, you won’t be able to operate there when the need arises.”