Employing high-tech drones for high-risk inspections

In December 2021, the Innovative Solutions Canada Program awarded a contract to ARA Robotique to test their drone innovations in collaboration with Transport Canada. The project, which started in January 2022, is developing a type of drone that can function without access to GPS, which is usually a key part of a drone’s flight system.

The winter months saw Transport Canada and ARA Robotique test this technology in NORCAT’s underground testing facilities near Sudbury, Ontario. These tests helped the team prepare for real-world operational trials launched in the summer of 2022 in both Montreal and Halifax.

Though the tests were held in a mining environment, they tested the drones’ ability to fly without a GPS connection and scan objects in a complex environment. The trial gave the team confidence in the innovation and led to further testing on the intermittence of GPS signals.

Normally, Transport Canada’s marine inspectors would have to enter the hull of a ship to inspect for cracks, damages, and misplaced cargo. These tasks can be dangerous for inspectors, so ARA Robotique found a way for drones to enter and scan marine ships, without the need of a constant GPS signal. This way of evaluating the safety of the cargo ships is both quicker, cheaper, and safer.

More trial inspections will be carried out by the end of 2022, funded by Transport Canada’s Experimental Fund and led by the Innovation Centre’s Multimodal Team.

In these inspections, drones will use a suite of sensors including LIDAR (a system that uses beams of light that bounce off surfaces). The beams help the drone record the measured distance and map a physical environment. With these measurements, engineers can produce 3D models of the physical environment.

The Innovation Centre believes that these trials will prove the value drone inspections for ship inspectors. The longer a cargo ship is docked in port, the longer it takes to start moving goods and freeing up space for other ships. Since drones can inspect ships much faster than humans can, the technology could really benefit Canada’s supply chains.

This project is the latest in a series of long and successful collaborations between ARA Robotique and Transport Canada. Together the Multimodal Team and ARA Robotique have looked into the possibility of using drones to:

  • measure the height of bridges
  • monitor construction projects
  • inspect roads and
  • assess ice damming

Over this time, ARA has grown from a team of students at École de technologie supérieure in Montreal to one of Canada’s innovation success stories. The team has successfully developed their own made-in-Canada drones.

What started out as a group of university students winning a national drone competition has evolved into an organization that continues support competitiveness and innovation in the drone sector.