Robots in the oil sands
“The system that BMI was using required a lot of manual intervention,” explained Stephen Dwyer, an engineering graduate student from the University of Alberta.
Dwyer and two fellow UAlberta graduate students, Jamie Yuen and Nicolas Olmedo, took up the research challenge through the Mitacs Accelerate program under the supervision of their supervisor, Dr. Mike Lipsett. By the end of the internship, the team had a working alpha prototype.
“The system we developed allows for automatic data analysis. Through onboard sensors, we could monitor the current location of vehicles by GPS, how many hours they have run, when they were turned on and off and when they last reported back to the server,” explains Jamie.
Impressed with their research, BMI approached the trio about further developing the prototype into a product for the market. It was unveiled at ProMat 2015, the major expo for manufacturing and supply chain professionals in North America and BMI has since received the first production run of the device.
“I wasn’t one of those people who started university with plans to launch a company,” said Jamie Yuen. “But the success of our Mitacs internship and our partnership with BMI made starting Copperstone Technologies in 2014 the logical next step.”
Copperstone Technologies is a design and product development engineering firm in Alberta. They provide core expertise in electrical/mechanical design and advanced robotic systems. Their remote sensing technologies provide low-cost measurements for vehicle tracking, structural-health monitoring, and fault detection. In the oil sands industry, their robotic systems help perform geotechnical surveys in previously inaccessible locations.
The team is now focusing on its own line of products and services, notably a robotic technology for monitoring oil sands tailing ponds. The robotic vehicle floats on the surface of tailing ponds, taking measurements and samples from the layers without disturbing and displacing the sediment. A proof-of-concept vehicle has just successfully completed its first field trials, and is being ruggedized for deployment on a real tailings deposit.
If we can determine what kinds of materials are settling out of the ponds, we can use the information to improve the upstream processes that are generating the material and shorten the time before reclamation can begin,” explains Jamie.
The key to success
Jamie, Stephen, and Nicolas stay in close contact with their supervisor, Mike Lipsett, who joined the company as co-owner and Chief Technology Officer. Jamie says that it is the team’s collection of skills, after eight years of collaboration that makes the company strong.
He credits his Mitacs Accelerate internship as helping him hone the technical skills and business relationships required to co-found the company.
That’s not to say that the team hasn’t faced many of the challenges experienced by technology start-ups. “At the beginning, financing was always an issue, not to mention the fact that we didn’t realize the amount of administrative work that goes along with running a business. Paying rent, bookkeeping, accounts receivable and payable, time tracking… it takes a lot of time,” Jamie says.
But he says that it’s important to remain undaunted by such details. “As long as you have a good team and a solid idea to buy into, you have what you need.”
Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, along with Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, Research & Development Corporation of Newfoundland & Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, and the Government of Saskatchewan for their support of the Accelerate program.