HIGH TECH Self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles can clean

The Georgia Straight - - High Tech - By

BKate Wil­son

inge-watch­ing Youtube might be con­sid­ered a waste of time by some, but for CEO Matthew An­der­son it pro­vided the in­spi­ra­tion for a thriv­ing Van­cou­ver com­pany.

“I worked in fi­nance for ba­si­cally 10 years of my life, but it was al­ways a hunger of mine to get into en­trepreneur­ship,” the UBC grad tells the Ge­or­gia Straight on the line from the com­pany’s of­fice at SFU Ven­ture Labs.

“I had a ba­jil­lion dif­fer­ent ideas in my mind—ev­ery­thing from cof­fee shops to cloth­ing lines to lo­gis­tics—and I was en­thu­si­as­tic about all of them. But I had this thing where when­ever I couldn’t sleep, I would stay up and watch Youtube videos, and I al­most al­ways watched things on ro­bots. I loved them. So one night I was watch­ing these videos and I had a mo­ment when I re­al­ized that it was where my pas­sion is.”

Af­ter head­ing back to school at UBC and tak­ing as many on­line cour­ses as he could, the ex-ac­coun­tant be­gan study­ing up on the tech­ni­cal side of his new­found idea. A self-de­scribed “wannabe en­gi­neer”, An­der­son teamed up with ex­perts to bring his vi­sion to life. Mir­ror­ing the de­vel­op­ments of gi­ants like Waymo and Uber, he and his em­ploy­ees started to make their own au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles, but geared them to­ward in­door en­vi­ron­ments rather than out­door roads. They named the com­pany A & K Ro­bot­ics.

“We started as a com­puter-vi­sion tech­nol­ogy,” says An­der­son, dis­cussing the ways that ma­chines can be trained to see and un­der­stand im­ages. “Four years ago, we got a Logitech we­b­cam from Craigslist and stuck it onto this plat­form with wheels that we built. It looked up at the ceil­ing to iden­tify fea­tures vis­ually. It had very high ac­cu­racy in the in­door en­vi­ron­ment.

“We took that and said, ‘How do we make this work in the real world?’ We had to add in a bunch of other types of sen­sors and make it much more ro­bust and re­li­able. Now the prod­uct is a brain that we can put onto any­thing with wheels and turn that thing into a self-driv­ing ve­hi­cle.”

The first area the A & K Ro­bot­ics team tar­geted was jan­i­to­rial ma­chin­ery. Trans­form­ing in­dus­trial clean­ing equip­ment into what is, in essence, a gi­ant, self-nav­i­gat­ing Roomba, the com­pany found suc­cess serv­ing en­vi­ron­ments like shop­ping malls and schools. Able to safely steer around any ob­sta­cle, the aug­mented ma­chines use ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to avoid col­li­sions.

“The very first time, a per­son will teach the ro­bot where to go,” An­der­son says. “As a per­son is push­ing it or driv­ing it, it’s learn­ing the path, and then it’s able to redo that path on its own in the fu­ture.”

Fi­nally out of stealth mode af­ter four years of de­vel­op­ment, A & K Ro­bot­ics is look­ing to­ward tack­ling a sec­ond mar­ket. Able to trans­form any mov­ing ma­chine into an in­door self-driv­ing ve­hi­cle, the com­pany is aim­ing for its next cre­ation to of­fer free­dom and in­de­pen­dence to peo­ple who face mo­bil­ity chal­lenges.

“There are so many uses,” An­der­son says. “It’s se­nior care homes, it’s hos­pi­tals, it’s trans­porta­tion net­works. There are mu­se­ums and art gal­leries. There are a lot of ap­pli­ca­tions, and we have plans for all of those.”

First up on the com­pany’s radar is mak­ing it eas­ier for peo­ple to get be­tween gates at air­ports.

“Say you’ve bro­ken your leg or find it hard to get around,” An­der­son imag­ines. “You land af­ter a flight, get off your plane, and hob­ble off. You can walk up to one of these self-driv­ing chairs and sit down. You scan your board­ing pass, and it will au­to­mat­i­cally take you from the gate you’re at to the gate that you’re go­ing to. It adds value right away to peo­ple.”

Now ready to place A & K Ro­bot­ics in the pub­lic eye, An­der­son is proud to ad­ver­tise that his com­pany’s in­no­va­tive prod­uct is made in Canada.

“It’s about time peo­ple re­al­ize that this kind of stuff is com­ing out of Van­cou­ver,” he says.

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