Pandemic response highlights strengths and weaknesses of Canadian robotics

by Inside Logistics Online Staff

A group of University of Toronto researchers took a look at Canadian robotic deployments used to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and found them lacking.

In a whitepaper, “Making sense of the robotized pandemic response”, published in September, the UofT Robotics Institute researchers found that Canadian pandemic-related robotic deployments were “more cautious” than in other regions, “in spite of the important role that robots of Canadian origin are now playing on the global stage”.

The researchers point out that while automating hygiene processes gained a great deal of the attention on robotics during the pandemic, they caution “against approaches that put too much stock into demonstration systems and the ability to convert them to deployable robot systems in the short term.” Disinfection robots “show great promise in reducing exposure risk and augmenting cleaning capacity when workers fall ill or cannot come into work.

Further validation

Yet details regarding their effectiveness are still unknown, in particular regarding their ability to adequately disinfect soft surfaces like bedding, seating, and personal protective equipment (PPE),” the paper reports. It suggests these robots need further validation before they are more broadly used.

The researchers found that other use cases for robotics included applications that reduce the need for physical human interaction, including public safety drones and security monitoring robots, social interaction and companion bots, autonomous delivery and transport, and, especially, behind-the-scenes manufacturing and logistics automation. They point out that systems in these areas that were much more widely deployed before the pandemic are quickly gaining in acceptance. Likewise, those that are easily adapted are also gaining in market share.

Otto Motors

Several Canadian robotics companies caught the researchers’ attention, among them Otto Motors. A division of Clearpath Robotics, Otto Motors is a name familiar to many in the logistics space, for their autonomous material handling solutions. (See for a sampling of the stories we have written about the Waterloo, Ontario-based robotics pioneer.) The U of T team noted that Otto experienced a surge in orders as a result of the pandemic as existing customers – mostly large manufacturers – sought to deal with physical distancing requirements and staff shortages.

The study concludes “while Canada has significant core technical strengths in robotics, it is not exploiting its robotics assets as heavily as it could. As a result, Canada risks falling behind other nations in leveraging robotics technologies to navigate the pandemic, post-pandemic recovery, and the future beyond.”

They propose that Canada’s lack of infrastructure for bringing robots to market, coupled with our relatively small market are the chief impediments to greater success. “These conditions have made it a challenge for Canadian robotics startups to scale and grow, as they must quickly prove themselves capable of exporting internationally,” the authors assert. And to do that the companies need technical talent, financing, and executive talent with in-depth experience in global markets, product management, operational design, finance and marketing.

In short, the authors suggest the budding Canadian robotics industry needs help: “It is our view that Canada needs a unified robotics roadmap, tying industry, government and academia together with a clear mandate for specialization and persistent investment in the robotics industry. With the right strategic investment focus going forward, Canada could reignite its robotics innovation pipeline as an important growth engine for the post-pandemic economic recovery.”