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December 2013

Research into remote sensors inspires interns to start their own company

For a company operating a large fleet of vehicles, ensuring they are being properly monitored and maintained is crucial.

Alberta-based BMI Technologies manufactures onboard sensor systems which track the usage of forklifts.  But the company wanted to improve the technology to allow for automatic data analysis across a large fleet of vehicles, with uplink to a central computer system.

BMI was without an in-house research or engineering department, but learned of the Mitacs Accelerate program from CEO Arvind Gupta during a chance meeting at a social event in Vancouver.

Professor Mike Lipsett from the University of Alberta’s Department of Mechanical Engineering developed a research plan with Steve Plexman, President of BMI, after arranging the research funding through Mitacs Business Development Director in Alberta, Christine Gillies.

Dr. Lipsett led the research project, with a colleague in computing science, supervising a multidisciplinary team of five interns from the University of Alberta. They joined the project through a Mitacs Accelerate cluster internship, designed for long-term research with multiple students. 

Stephen Dwyer, who is completing his Masters in Mechanical Engineering, says the goal was to both enhance and automate the existing technology. 

“The previous system BMI was using required a lot of manual intervention. The system we’ve developed allows for automatic data analysis.  Through onboard sensors, we can now monitor the current location by GPS, how many hours it has run, when it was turned on and off and when it last reported back to the server.

“All of this data is fed back wirelessly through the cellular network to a processing system, allowing for centralized monitoring and management.  The idea is that it could monitor tens of thousands of units at once.”

The system can be used to create more efficient maintenance schedules for a large fleet of vehicles, determine which units are being underutilized and reduce downtime.

“This technology can also be applied to taxi cabs, rental cars, or any other light commercial equipment,” Dr. Lipsett explained. 

He said some of his interns already have plans for advancing this technology when they finish their university studies.

“Three of them are now planning to start their own company to provide these embedded systems commercially.  I’m now encouraging them to finish their theses and go out and start a business.  The Mitacs program has been a great hands-on experience with industry.”

BMI President Steve Plexman said connecting with graduate engineering students through a co-funded Mitacs Accelerate research project has made the new technology a reality.

“The students brought a different perspective to our challenge, and a broad understanding of the technology and concept we were trying to push forward.  They have fresh ideas and energy and are open to new ways of doing things.

“We’d be looking to hire the interns if they weren’t starting their own company - and we just might be one of their first customers when they do!”

Mitacs gratefully acknowledges the Government of Canada, the Networks of Centres of Excellence's Industrial Research and Development Internship program, Western Economic Diversification, NRC-IRAP and Alberta Innovates Technology Futures for their support of Mitacs-Accelerate in the province.