Best Discovery This Week: Tech in Canada
Roopinder Tara posted on May 04, 2018 |

Contributors: Michael Alba, Emily Pollock, Juliver Ramirez

Once a year, Ontario trots out its brightest companies, hippest startups, and most amazing technologies and sets a stage for it all at OCE Discovery conference in downtown Toronto. This year, over 3,600 attendees, 550 companies and exhibitors made Discovery a pretty hot ticket. ENGINEERING.com, headquartered in nearby Mississauga, dropped in to cover it.

During her keynote speech, Megan Smith–once a CTO of the United States, a VP at Google, an MIT graduate, and now spearheading shift7 (that’s the “&” symbol on the keyboard)–gave a Silicon Valley blessing to the Canadian event. Smith expressed her belief that “if we include everyone, we can fix nearly everything.”

Have Your Kale and Eat It Too

Living room furniture can sprout plants. That's a good thing for those seeking greens closer to home, says Conner Tidd, of Just Vertical.
Living room furniture can sprout plants. That's a good thing for those seeking greens closer to home, says Conner Tidd, of Just Vertical.

From the abundance of booths devoted to tech farming, it would seem one of the world’s problems that Smith alluded to is the lack of kale. The bitter leaf that ruins salads and smoothies was featured in three booths.

“You’ve not had kale like this kale,” said Conner Tidd, of Just Vertical, as we ripped off a leaf from a mini vertical farm designed to double as living room furniture. The company grows the kale and other edible plants through hydroponics, combining farming and living room decoration. Sure enough, the kale was not bitter. “That’s just the way it’s grown on industrial farms,” said Tidd.

Looking like an abandoned microwave overrun by nature,modgarden's tinyFarm offers another solution for cultivating your own vegetables.
Looking like an abandoned microwave overrun by nature, modgarden's Tiny Farm offers another solution for cultivating your own vegetables.

Down the aisle, another tech farmer promises “a salad a day” in what is either the smallest farm in the world or the greenest appliance. The size of a microwave, the countertop “tiny farm” by modgarden brims with leaves, all presumably edible. The farm appliance can be ordered now for $500 and will be $650 if you wait for its production in Fall 2018.

The geodesic half-dome greenhouse by husband and wife Ben Canning and Stefany Nieto of Growing North aims to bring vegetables to the native people of northern Canada, people who rarely, if ever, see anything that is green and edible, much less kale.

“We gave one girl a lettuce and you should have seen her face light up as she ate it,” said Destine Lee at the booth.

Growing North runs on the goodness of the hearts of its founders, making it a non-profit operation. Its ability to harness solar energy during the long, sunny Arctic days–up to 23 hours of sun a day–makes it green in more ways than one. The organization relays the energy into the country’s grid. The greenhouses then draw from the grid during the dark Arctic winter, enabling the produce to grow year-round.

Canada’s Space Program – Who Knew?

The shows “aerospace corridor” featured what may be Canada's most visible contribution in space–the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System, better known as the Canadarm, the robotic arm that serviced the ISS.

In what may be news to the rest of the world, Canada has a space program that is more than just the Canadarm. A busy Canada Space Agency had so many satellites on display that we had to ask if there were any limits to the amount of hardware they can put up there.

Apparently not a concern, as it was explained to us. Space is quite… spacious. Plus, no one is saying we can’t, said one engineer.

From the size of a toaster oven to that of a mini-fridge, the Toronto-based CSA contracts with private agencies and government agencies to send hardware into orbit to track, monitor and report on a variety of happenings on the Earth’s surface. Without launch rockets of their own, the CSA relies on rockets from other countries.

Sherp Big Wheels

The Sherp. Is it the most expensive ATV on the planet?
The Sherp. Is it the most expensive ATV on the planet?

Big-wheeled trucks are a surefire traffic-stopper at any show and Discovery was no different. The big-wheeled Sherp, a $130K ATV, looked as if it could roll over the rest of the displays. While expensive for an ATV, it may have been a small price to pay for a life-saving search and rescue. According to signage, the Sherp saved seven lives when the Mounties couldn’t. Manufactured in the Ukraine, the Sherp can traverse every terrain (except roads–not legally at least–so it must be towed). It can power up slopes of 35 degrees. It swims, thanks to buoyancy provided by its enormous tires, which can be filled by the vehicles own exhaust. Raised treads work as paddles in the water. Instead of a steering wheel, the driver operates two levers for skid steering, we were told.

Wear it well. A sensor disguised as a stretch fabric. If stretched across your chest, the sensor will send your heart and breathing rate to your health care app, according to Myant.

New Direction for CAD Modeling?

Virtual reality (VR) never fails to wow a crowd and Discovery 2018 did not disappoint. Though most of the exhibits targeted the entertainment industry, one app that caught our attention hints at the potential of VR technology for engineering: MasterpieceVR.

MasterpieceVR is among several VR applications (like Google Tilt Brush, Facebook Quill, and others) pioneering a new form of art. Part sculpting, part painting, part CGI, MasterpieceVR and similar apps let users create 3D art and animation in VR.

(Image courtesy of MasterpieceVR.)
(Image courtesy of MasterpieceVR.)

While MasterpieceVR and its kin are typically aimed at artists, it’s not hard to see how this technology might be a boon for CAD modelers. They already spend their days designing 3D objects—who better to benefit from an actual 3D design workspace?

At the moment, it’s unlikely that any CAD modeler would want to use MasterpieceVR for their design work. While it’s a lot of fun to play around with, MasterpieceVR simply lacks the professional functionality, precision and parametrization needed for CAD. But it could be the first step in a new, largely unexplored direction. Just as MacPaint preceded Pro/ENGINEER, perhaps MasterpieceVR will help pave the way to true VR CAD.

There are a few preliminary attempts at this concept—like MakeVR Pro and Mindesk—but nothing that comes close to a true tool for engineers. Viewing CAD models in VR or AR is becoming more and more common, but actual model creation remains limited to our 2D screens for now. Both the hardware and software for VR CAD will need to improve substantially for it to really take off.

Engineering.com’s Juliver Ramirez creating art with MasterpieceVR.
ENGINEERING.com’s Juliver Ramirez creating art with MasterpieceVR.

In the meantime, perhaps VR apps like MasterpieceVR will serve as a platform for sketching preliminary designs. If nothing else, it’s certainly more fun than getting out your pencil and pad of engineering paper.

The Robots of Tomorrow Here Today

YuMi in action.
YuMi in action.

AI and robotics had a huge presence on the floor and the conversation. Not only did the first day feature a panel on the opportunities and challenges in AI research, part of the day's keynote speech was presented by Sophia, Hanson Robotics' most famous creation. Sophia cracked jokes, talked with creator David Hanson over hologram and, once again, reassured her human listeners that she was not planning on instigating world domination any time soon. "The intent for humanoid robots like myself is to help solve problems for humanity, not create them," she told host Tom Corr, President and CEO of OCE.

The show also delivered for those interested in more down-to-earth applications of robotics. Robotic arm technology was on full display at booths like Sheridan College’s Centre for Advanced Manufacturing and Design Technologies (CAMDT), where ABB’s YuMi robot handled delicate flasks and poured water between them. Other robots picked up trash, solved Rubix cubes and, in the case of one of Humber College’s innovations, played a mean game of Pictionary.

Man vs. Machine–engineering.com’s Emily Pollack takes on one of Humber College’s creations in a game of Pictionary. She came in second (We are not bragging).
Man vs. Machine–ENGINEERING.com’s Emily Pollock takes on one of Humber College’s creations in a game of Pictionary. Not to brag, but she came in second.

Back in the aerospace area, Ontario Drive & Gear featured the Small Planetary Rover Platform (SPRP), a rover developed for the Canadian Space Agency to travel the surfaces of the Moon and Mars. For now, the little rover demonstrated its capabilities—and its curious metallic wheels—on the carpeted floor.

Inside the Small Planetary Rover Platform, developed for extraterrestrial exploration.
Inside the Small Planetary Rover Platform, developed for extraterrestrial exploration.

Many of these robots are far from finalized. Sophia in particular showed cracks in her programming when asked outside-the-box questions; an audience question about the future of AI in education elicited a generic answer about how children are the future. "My artificial intelligence isn't completely self-learning, so my brain doesn't work completely like a human brain," she admitted, during the keynote.

But for AI enthusiasts and skeptics alike, the event was a fascinating look at where the field is today and where it could be headed tomorrow.

A Drone of All Trades?

A drone’s eye view of the OCE discovery showroom. (Image courtesy of OCE Ontario.)
A drone’s eye view of the OCE discovery showroom. (Image courtesy of OCE Ontario.)

In the Young Entrepreneurs Zone was Dronemates, Inc. which pilots drones and performs camerawork to achieve difficult bird’s eye shots for a whole slew of applications.

In the agricultural industry, Dronemates lend a helping fan to farmers by conducting detailed field surveys across large plots of land. This allows farmers to identify the exact issue occurring in their crops and then focus their efforts on those specific areas of need, rather than wasting their resources scouring the entire area. This monitoring power also works for keeping an eye on livestock as well as inspecting hard-to-reach equipment from afar.

Dronemates also offers services in filming and photographing aerial shots for cinematic and advertising purposes. For applications like these, the company relies on a Zenmuse X5 camera–a camera specializing in aerial imagery–with interchangeable lenses supporting 4K video and 16MP RAW pictures.

Beautiful sweeping landscape shots are easier said than done­ so how exactly does Dronemates achieve them?

Nic Altobelli (left) and Evan Lavine, owners and operators at Dronemates Inc. (Photo courtesy of University of Guelph.)
Nic Altobelli (left) and Evan Lavine, owners and operators at Dronemates Inc. (Photo courtesy of University of Guelph.)

The answer is teamwork. The owners of Dronemates Nic Altobelli and Evan Lavine also double as drone operator and camera operator respectively. Their two-person team approach allows for smoother, natural-feeling shots as they each focus on their own core strengths in photography and drone technology.

After discussing the various use cases with Lavine, we asked him about the head-mounted display (HMD) sitting nearby. Lavine hinted that Dronemates is in the process of exploring another use case–incorporating their drones in the creation of cinematic virtual reality experiences. With a young and growing company like this, it will be exciting to see what else they pursue on the horizon.


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