Ry­er­son, soft­ware firm soti align on $20m drone ven­ture

Med­i­cal in­dus­try, search-and-res­cue sec­tor tar­geted

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Ry­er­son Univer­sity has signed an agree­ment with Mis­sis­sauga, Ont.-based tech­nol­ogy firm Soti to help de­velop au­ton­o­mous drones through the firm's new aero­space di­vi­sion. Soti is al­lo­cat­ing $20 mil­lion to start the ven­ture, with ad­di­tional fund­ing for Ry­er­son.

The group is tar­get­ing early adopters in the med­i­cal in­dus­try and in the search-and-res­cue space. The ini­tia­tive comes as the fed­eral gov­ern­ment en­cour­ages more drone R&D in Canada, and as the Toronto-based univer­sity in­creas­ingly leans on pri­vate-sec­tor part­ner­ships to fund its re­search.

Ry­er­son will lead the di­vi­sion's re­search, with a soon-to-be-named re­search chair spear­head­ing the univer­sity's role in the en­deav­our. The con­tract in­cludes $2.5 mil­lion, the bulk of which will fund the chair over a five-year term. There's an op­tion for more fund­ing “for re­search projects that have not been iden­ti­fied at this point, to cre­ate some agility and flex­i­bil­ity as things de­velop,” said Steven Liss, vice-pres­i­dent of re­search and in­no­va­tion at Ry­er­son. The agree­ment also carves out coop and train­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents, as Soti aims to build its tal­ent pipe­line from the school's fac­ul­ties of science and en­gi­neer­ing.

Soti pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive Carl Ro­drigues said the drone pro­ject fits with the com­pany's fo­cus on mo­bil­ity tech­nol­ogy and man­ag­ing smart de­vices. The firm cre­ates soft­ware and prod­ucts — and de­signs and man­ages apps — that let teams mon­i­tor con­nected de­vices re­motely. Ro­drigues, a com­puter sci­en­tist by train­ing, in­cor­po­rated the com­pany in 1995. By 2001, he had de­vel­oped soft­ware that let users con­trol their mo­bile de­vices from their lap­tops, a sys­tem that be­came the cat­a­lyst of Soti's core busi­ness of­fer­ing. To­day, Soti has some 1,000 em­ploy­ees across 12 of­fices — in­clud­ing in Ire­land, Swe­den, Aus­tralia, In­dia and Ja­pan — and counts among its 17,000 cus­tomers Amer­i­can Air­lines, De­liv­ery Hero and the Cana­dian Au­to­mo­bile As­so­ci­a­tion. Ro­drigues said the pri­vately owned com­pany gen­er­ates about $100 mil­lion in an­nual rev­enue and has never taken out­side in­vest­ment. “We're con­stantly grow­ing and prof­itable,” he said.

Ro­drigues said he's been tin­ker­ing with the drone tech­nol­ogy for about three years. In April, he as­sem­bled the aero­space group — a team of about 30 peo­ple work­ing on hard­ware, vi­sion soft­ware and voice in­tel­li­gence.

The CEO ap­proached Ry­er­son in mid­sum­mer with a pro­posal to part­ner on the ini­tia­tive. Liss said the univer­sity had worked in­for­mally with Ro­drigues in the past on a cy­ber­se­cu­rity ini­tia­tive that be­came the school's Rogers Cy­ber­se­cu­rity Cat­a­lyst, a train­ing and in­no­va­tion hub in Bramp­ton, Ont.

“With the fa­mil­iar­ity (Soti) had with Ry­er­son and our in­ter­est in try­ing to fig­ure out how to work with them more for­mally, the aero­space ini­tia­tive cre­ated a good op­por­tu­nity.”

Soti is fo­cus­ing its tech­nol­ogy on in­door use cases. Ro­drigues said early ap­pli­ca­tions of the au­ton­o­mous drones, which mea­sure about eight inches in di­am­e­ter, will be in med­i­cal care set­tings like long-term-care fa­cil­i­ties, where they can mon­i­tor pa­tients' needs and as­sist staff. Soti is also eye­ing the search and res­cue sec­tor. “You could send a drone to in­spect a mine shaft col­lapse, for ex­am­ple, it would cre­ate a 3D map that would show if there are hu­mans in­side and how to nav­i­gate to them,” said Ro­drigues. Mon­i­tor­ing in­ven­tory and op­er­a­tions in ware­houses and fac­to­ries is an­other ap­pli­ca­tion, said the CEO.

Ry­er­son, mean­while, is hop­ing the part­ner­ship with Soti will help at­tract ad­di­tional fund­ing to its aero­space de­part­ment from Ot­tawa. Last year, Trans­port Canada launched a five-year plan in part­ner­ship with the Na­tional Re­search Coun­cil to boost re­search and de­vel­op­ment for drone tech­nol­ogy in Canada. “We're ex­pect­ing to lever­age com­mit­ments (from Soti) to get fed­eral fund­ing through the (Na­tional Re­search Coun­cil) Al­liance pro­gram, for ex­am­ple,” said Liss.

Liss noted that pri­vate-sec­tor part­ner­ships have been key to grow­ing Ry­er­son's re­search fund­ing. In the past four years, he said the school saw R&D fund­ing in­crease by 65 per cent. “At the heart of this is a real strong, un­der­ly­ing com­mit­ment to these part­ner­ships.” While the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment has some­what re­duced its re­search fund­ing for On­tario uni­ver­si­ties since 2014, fund­ing from the pri­vate sec­tor has in­creased more than 20 per cent over that pe­riod.

Ro­drigues ex­pects to have a pro­to­type of the drone ready by De­cem­ber and have de­mos avail­able for prospec­tive cus­tomers to test to­wards the end of 2021.

WE'RE CON­STANTLY GROW­ING

AND PROF­ITABLE.

COUR­TESY SOTI

Soti pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive Carl Ro­drigues said he's been tin­ker­ing with the drone tech­nol­ogy for about three years. In April, he as­sem­bled the aero­space group — a team of about 30 peo­ple work­ing on hard­ware, vi­sion soft­ware and voice in­tel­li­gence.

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