Cleantech robot does industrial dirty work for humans
It’s difficult, dirty and dangerous work, but someone has to do it. For clients of Copperstone Technologies, that someone is an amphibious robot.
“It’s critical that industrial companies and mines continually monitor their waste areas, to measure their progress on environmental mitigation and remediation, yet the terrain involved is extremely dangerous,” says company co-founder Nicolas Olmedo, explaining that travelling through these environments is often like trying to move through thick, black honey – travel with wheels, tracks and boat propellers is impossible.
Olmedo and two fellow graduate students in mechanical engineering from the University of Alberta – Stephen Dwyer and Jamie Yuen – founded Copperstone Technologies after a successful Mitacs Accelerate Internship together. Their ground-breaking work means intelligent robots – capable of traversing mud, snow, ice or rock using screw-shaped pontoons – can be used instead of people for waste-area monitoring.
Even if floating excavators are used to carry a team of geotechnical experts out into the middle of a waste pond, the process is time-consuming, costly and there’s always the risk of getting stuck, meaning a backup crew must be on standby. “We thought, instead of trying to send people, why aren’t we sending robots?” says Olmedo.
The company’s HELIX family of amphibious cleantech robots – which can be remotely controlled by a human or programmed to operate autonomously – use a patented combination of screw-propulsion and four-wheel drive technologies to float on water or scroll across any terrain, no matter how wet, muddy, snowy or sticky. At the same time, they’re equipped with state-of-the-art tools to collect mud or water samples, and perform geotechnical measurements required to monitor environmental clean-up efforts.
“Our robots can go out into these hazardous waste areas and successfully collect samples from under the surface of tailings,” Olmedo says, noting that in some cases, the robots collect data that would be impossible to gather otherwise. “Our samples allow our customers to analyze everything from the composition of their waste material to how much water is trapped in the sludge [and] how much residual bitumen is present.”
HELIX robots can be purchased directly or contracted out as a robot-as-a-service, in which case Copperstone employees deploy and operate them. In both instances, the machines are customized for each specific industrial application, such as water surveys, water profiling, water and sediment sampling, geotechnical surveys, or assessing ice thickness to ensure the safety of ice roads in winter.
Because materials and terrains are unique to each application, the company operates like a Formula One pit crew, continually improving the performance of their robots through small adjustments after each job. “We’re a young company, so we’re constantly refining our procedures,” says Olmedo, explaining that a task might require 10 buttons to be pushed the first time it’s tackled, but ultimately the goal is “to make the robot so intelligent, no buttons are required.”
With the global mine waste management market forecast to grow to more than 208 billion tons by 2028, the company is on track to achieve multimillion-dollar revenues in the coming years. It has already grown from a small team of three founders in 2014 to 18 employees today. Although they started out tackling problems unique to the oil sands in their own backyard, the company now has a global reach, working with industrial clients throughout Canada, the U.S., Europe, Africa, Australia, Brazil and Peru.
“In many cases, industrial waste is considered a ticking time bomb and there’s a huge push to do a better job of environmental monitoring,” says Olmedo. “We’re providing a solution that is accurate, affordable and most importantly, keeps people safe, so that ultimately these hazardous sites can be reclaimed and returned to their original state.”
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