Canadian winters? “Snow” problem!

Are you tired of spending hours shoveling your driveway? While we can’t control what falls from the sky, Transport Canada (TC) is investigating new technologies to help move the snow out of your way.

TC is testing the world’s first electric, semi-autonomous sidewalk snowplow and salting robot manufactured by Swap Robotics (Swap).

TC recently awarded Swap a $172K contract to perform real-world demonstrations of their electric snowplow and salting robots at Tunney’s Pasture, just outside Ottawa’s downtown core.

The robots plowed and salted a 1.7 km route, representing a sizable portion of the campus, covering snow events from February to mid-March. These demonstrations allowed TC employees to assess the performance of purpose-built robots (compared to traditional snowplows) in real-world conditions and validate their safe interactions with pedestrians and other vulnerable road users. The robots are designed to stop within 10 feet of any pedestrian, animal, or vehicle they may encounter!

Like advanced autonomous robotic vacuum cleaners, the robots operate using a “teach and repeat” method to learn the desired route and then complete it autonomously. During the testing, all operations were carried out under the supervision of in-person chaperones and remote pilots, who oversaw all robot operations.

Next, Carleton University will be testing the robots on their campus so that the next generation of engineers can learn about the current state of technology and investigate potential operating savings of using the robots on campus.

The advantages

Swap’s robots offer many advantages:

  • Reduced carbon emissions due to battery operation
  • Improved economic efficiency
  • 15-20 hours of continuous operation on a single charge
  • Quieter operation for day and night-time use, crucial for dense, urban areas where noise travels

These advantages have cleared the path for many accomplishments since the launch of this pilot project.

“In terms of accomplishments, firstly, we plowed a lot of snow!” says Mark Robbins, Senior Program Policy Analyst in TC’s Innovation Centre. “More importantly, the technology performed as promised by Swap, without any safety or operational issues during the tests. The demonstrations also exposed TC regulators and potential users at the federal, provincial and municipal level to the technology. Once the testing at Carleton University is complete, we will use the tests to determine the next steps for this technology in Canada”.

Next steps?

To successfully deploy the robots on city streets, TC will require concrete evidence and measurable standards to determine that the technology performs safely and efficiently.

The basic design principle of Swap’s robots is that the functional attachment can be ‘swapped’ to enable a variety of uses, including grass-cutting and inspections related to seasonal sidewalk maintenance. Through the Innovative Solutions Canada (ISC) program, TC worked with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) to check how Swap’s robots perform in Canadian climatic conditions. The ISC program is a Government of Canada initiative to support the testing and scale-up of Canadian-made innovations.

Swap Robotics is advancing the “state-of-the-art” in vocational robotics and validating real-world safety and useability as the robotics industry evolves. This aligns with TC’s ongoing commitment to experiment with advancements in emerging technologies and supports the department’s mandate to develop a safe, efficient and environmentally sustainable transportation system.

The future of robots in transportation

The Innovation Centre at TC is actively investigating other projects through the Innovation Solutions Canada program.

“Automated technologies provide an opportunity to create a safer, more efficient and environmentally sustainable transportation system,” says Mark. “For example, using sidewalk snowplows can help with labour shortages as it is hard to find people willing to take seasonal work on demand, typically during the night. This technology can help fill a gap and decrease pollution from the transportation system.”

“The recent testing carried out helped us to exchange best practices with other ministries of transportation and municipalities, and to better understand the strengths and challenges of the technology. Overall, trials like these are key to advancing common standards and knowledge of new technologies like robotics,” Mark adds.

The knowledge and experience gained from this collaborative effort will also further contribute to TC’s ability to reduce emissions from transportation vehicles moving forward, whether by land, sea, rail, and roads (or sidewalks, in this case). We can’t wait to see what’s next!


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