Made in Canada robots enhance work and play

From wearable technology to revolutionary rehabilitation, intelligent systems have come a long way indeed.

Some of these systems were demoed at the Canadian Conference on Intelligent Systems held in Windsor, Ont. recently.

Of particular interest were projects showcasing Canadian innovation in robotics – from robotic racing cars to tracking systems for spacecrafts.

Rehab Robot


And these projects aren’t confined to the lab. Many can be put to very practical use to improve the way we live and work.

Wearable Technology

An example of such purposeful technology is the “tactile belt” – a “wearable sensory device” that could potentially serve as a guidance system for blind persons or those suffering from Alzheimer’s. It was presented by University of Waterloo professor, John Zelek.

This belt allows you to navigate using only touch. There is no display on this device, as all information is conveyed via haptic technology.

“It’s like Mapquest or Google Maps without using your eyes,” says Zelek. “We’ve been working with the Canadian Institute for the Blind for a while now. Our goal was to design something marketable and relatively inexpensive.”

The belt nudges you towards a destination using intermediate way-points and lets you “feel” how much further you have to go.

It does this by providing a vibration similar to that of a cell phone, Zelek said.

The belt also communicates wirelessly with cell phones and computers. Once a destination is entered, either by text or speech, it uses global positioning system (GPS) software and remote sensing technology to guide wearers.

This wearable tactile technology consists of a controller, which uses proprietary algorithms and hardware to fuse sensory information from a super-sensitive GPS, self-calibrating inertial sensors, an altimeter and a magnetometer to provide localization indoors and outdoors.

A Bluetooth interface supports use of another device – such as a cell phone – as a conduit to the Internet.

Its secondary application involves the use of sensors that operate much like the human balance system and serve as the “eyes” of the belt, enabling wearers to avoid obstacles as they make their way towards a destination.

While the initial prototype looks a bit like a weightlifter’s belt, the device is being desinged to resemble a fashion belt — with a controller no bigger than a cell phone. The technology is being marketed by a Guelph, Ont. start-up Tactile Sight Inc. that specializes in navigational aids.

“Initially it was for helping the blind. It’s now being tested for Alzheimer patients to guide them home. It could also be used by the army or for hiking and hunting,” says Zelek.

The belt would come in handy in any situation involving sensory overload, he says.

The device, says the University of Waterloo professor, may also have commercial applications in the automotive industry, such as helping drivers avoid potential collisions. Other vertical application growth markets include the military, automotive and recreational users – such as hikers, sailors and hunters.

Revolutionary Rehab

It all started with a concept that Jacob Apkarian believed would revolutionize medical treatment and rehabilitation methods.

Apkarian is founder and CTO of Quanser, a Markham, Ont.-based intelligent systems consulting firm.

He approached Geoff Fernie, VP Research at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute with his concept.

Ottawa’s Rapid Emergency Response System


What eventually emerged from this meeting was The Autonomous Upper-Limb Stroke Rehabilitation (AUSR) Device,  in popular lingo dubbed the “rehab robot.”

A tabletop version of the robotic system was displayed at the Intelligent Systems conference.

This device pushes and pulls the patient’s hand and arm, guiding them through a set of computer-generated exercises in a virtual environment – such as guiding a ball through a maze, or a tilting a stool in a room, said Rachel Bandura-Oliver, director of marketing at Quanser.

She said as the patient recovers the ability to control their muscles, the robot and computer program provide progressively less guidance in completing the exercises.

The convenience factor is benefit of this device, suggested Bandura-Oliver.

“The rehab robot allows stroke patients to perform exercises in the comfort of their own home on their own schedule, while a continuous monitoring system assesses their performance and adjusts the difficulty level as required.”

She said the patient may then simply send in their progress report to their clinician.”

The rehab robot enables patients to build their muscles while playing video-like games.

Other touted benefits of the rehab robot include: allowing patients to play a more active role in their own treatment, reaching a greater number of people, and delivering more effective treatment faster.

According to Fernie, the device is for anyone who requires physiotherapy such as stroke patients, those injured in car accidents or disabled from arthritis, heart disease or other conditions.

Quicker patient recovery time, and consequently a decrease in healthcare costs, could be longer-term fallout of the system, which is is awaiting clinical trials, said Bandura-Oliver.

Rapid Emergency Response

“You can’t get there in eight minutes when you’re 10 minutes away,” is a statement attributed to Pierre Poirier, deputy chief, Ottawa Paramedic Services.

It was this reality that was the driving force behind the creation of CAE Deploy, Chris Pogue, president at CAE Professional Services Canada, an Ottawa-based provider of providing simulation and modeling technologies.

“I watched the development work on this project and saw how motivating that goal was for the team,” Pogue says.

CAE Deploy is a decision-support tool for First Responder operations.  It integrates intelligent resource management, traffic prediction, and visualization tools, allowing communication personnel to more effectively deploy their resources.

“We thought about how the end user makes decisions and employed user-centred design principles to capture what they do and how they do it,” said Pogue, “We then represented those processes within the simulation environment.”

The system offers dispatchers the information they need to optimize response times, including real-time or near real-time data about traffic patterns at different times of day, and historical call volumes related to different regions. This information is critical to decisions on where to place ambulances within a city,

Currently most paramedics use radio dispatching systems called Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD). Through CAE Deploy, Pogue said, dispatchers can decide which ambulance goes to the scene based on traffic patterns, road conditions, staff utilization rates and innumerable other real-time restraints.

CAE Deploy can also provide additional information crucial to decision making, such as vital stats and hospital availability.

This technology is currently being tested by the Ottawa Paramedics, who have been working with the team.

“The idea was to embed it into what they use today and allow them to do – what they already do – more effectively.”

Pogue said while built for paramedics, CAE Deploy could be used in any command-and-control environment with a complex decision making process, and where speed is critical to success, such as in the military.

“Intelligent Systems enable many devices we take for granted in our everyday life, such as thermostats and accelerator controls,” said Pat Breton, director of communications, Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

And these systems offer even more. They “support and enhance humans’ decision making processes and subsequent actions,” noted founder Andrew Goldenberg founder of Toronto-based robotics and automation technology company, Engineering Services Inc. (ESI).

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