NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network gets $5M grant

On Friday, the Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology), announced that a grant of $5 million had been awarded to support the newly formed NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network (NCFRN), a network that will be headed by Greg Dudek, Director of McGill's School Computer Science.
Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology) watches the AQUA robot in action. AQUA is the world's first amphibious robot, as at home on land as it is in water. In the background, Greg Dudek, Scientific Director of the NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network speaks to the media. / Photo: Owen Egan.

By McGill Reporter Staff

Friday’s announcement by the Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology), that a grant of $5 million had been awarded to support the newly formed NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network (NCFRN) brought back some early memories for Greg Dudek, the man who will head the NCFRN.

“My first intelligent machine was made out of matchboxes and beads and my first learning program was written on a manual typewriter in the hopes that I could stick it on the computer one day,” said the Director of McGill’s School Computer Science at the press conference held in the Macdonald Engineering Building earlier Friday. “So it’s very gratifying to see this lifelong vision come to fruition.”

The NCFRN will bring together the talents of field robotics researchers from across the country who work with robots that either interact with human beings, or move on land, in the air, or in water. The goal of the network is to pool knowledge and act as a catalyst for the development of integrated robotic applications to make smarter devices, where land-based robots “talk” to swimming robots and/or airborne robots, depending on the situation.

“[The NCFRN] will work with government agencies and industrial partners who will develop advanced robotics technology to automate tasks such as testing and monitoring air and water quality but also performing border patrols or carrying out search-and-rescue missions as safe and quickly as possible,” said Goodyear. “The innovative solutions developed by Dr. Dudek and other researchers like him will be uniquely Canadian, providing tangible benefits to Canadians.

“I think you can understand why I love my job so much,” said a smiling Goodyear.

Applications will range from environmental monitoring around Canada’s extensive coastlines– including in the far North, where harsh conditions make human research complicated and costly – to mining and resource identification, planetary exploration, pipeline monitoring, border surveillance, search and rescue, and even dealing with environmental disasters such as nuclear accidents. Smart wheelchairs, with voice activated control and arms that can grasp objects, are also in development and rely on similar technologies to identify objects and navigate through space. “Were going to develop robotics systems that can operate and take measurements in almost any outdoor environment. That includes at the bottom of the mine, underneath a rampaging iceberg or in a spreading oil spill in a toxic waste zone,” said Dudek.

In addition, the network will train students who can bring elements of robotics technologies to many industries that are not currently using robots, an idea that the forward-looking Dudek says is key. “The students trained by this network are going to benefit from this rich multi-disciplinary academic environment and the exposure to the range of industrial drivers that are going to make this all come together,” he said at the press conference. “They’ll be the masters of this new technology.”

The NCFRN’s grant was awarded through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Strategic Network Program funded by Industry Canada. The NCFRN will receive another $5 million in research support, approximately, in the form of direct in-kind exchanges of services and direct financial contributions from industrial and government partners. Goodyear also announced a further $1.3 million coming to researchers at McGill over the next five years through NSERC’s Strategic Partnership Grants to support nine projects in a range of fields.

“I would like to thank the Government of Canada, NSERC, and our industrial partners for their support for this important robotics research network,” said Principal Heather Munroe-Blum. “McGill’s innovation and excellence in this field depends on such strategic funding, which supports researchers in developing intersectoral, international collaborations, and broadens the impact of their cutting-edge research, regionally, nationally and globally.”

Dudek, the scientific director of NCFRN, said he is excited by the prospect of the work that lies ahead and confident that this is the right group of people to be doing it. “We have created a very ambitious program for ourselves, but this group combines the best people working in field robotics in industry, in the universities and in government, and I’ve no doubt that we will be able to work together to build a suite of shared tools to bring new concepts and technologies to fruition,” he said.

“This is an amazing opportunity and I think it will revolutionize the Canadian robotics research community and up our already great game to allow us to compete better internationally. It will have an impact scientifically, socio-economically and pedagogically,” Dudek told the audience. “I’m thrilled to have you all witness this emergence.”

Watch a video of the press conference here: