HELIX : Canada’s newest robotic explorer

In the fall of 2021, the Innovative Solutions Canada Program awarded a contract to Copperstone, a tech startup based out of Edmonton. The team at Copperstone has built and programmed an amphibious robotic vehicle called HELIX, which can float on water and cross any terrain, which allows it to travel through hazardous sites.

The first phase of the project, which didn’t begin until the summer of 2022, saw HELIX being used on open bodies of water. The rover’s ability to float allowed it to travel on the water’s surface and map out lakebeds. This feature helped the team at Copperstone and Transport Canada to prove the robot’s abilities, but also update lakebed maps, some of which haven’t been updated since being created a little over one hundred years ago.

This phase also tested HELIX’s ability to travel through muskegs, ecosystems characterized by moss-covered surfaces, stunted coniferous trees, and acidic shrubs. Because of the muskeg’s thick, nutrient-poor soil, they can be difficult to trek through. However, HELIX successfully made its way through these areas of northern Alberta.

The HELIX robot is named after its helical, screw-shaped pontoons that act as wheels. As these screw-like wheels turn together clockwise, they allow the rover to move in 4 different directions. The wheels have been designed so HELIX can scroll across a wide range of terrains, including:

  • mud
  • snow
  • ice, and
  • rock

The wheels are hollow and made of aluminum, which makes them buoyant enough to float on water.

The next phase of the project will see HELIX being used on ice roads. Ice roads are roadways made entirely of ice that run along frozen water surfaces. These roads can be found in Northern Canada during winter, usually from late December to early February. These roads are often found in remote areas and can be dangerous to drive on. Though most drivers tend to drive at least 40 km/r on ice roads, there have still been many accidents in the past. Nonetheless, ice roads are often the only way to reach some remote Northern communities.

With the help of Transport Canada, Copperstone plans to use HELIX to assess the thickness of different ice roads throughout Canada’s territories. The thicker an ice road’s ice, the safer it is to drive on. The team at Copperstone will attach a drill to the bottom of a HELIX rover and use it to measure the thickness of the ice. This will help the team determine which roads are too thin for vehicles to travel on. This phase will take place throughout the winter of 2022, and continue into 2023.

In the future, Copperstone hopes to develop a 3D printable model of HELIX. This would allow them to create HELIX robots in a range of sizes. Ideally, the team a rover small to transport by helicopter, which would allow them to test the robot’s abilities in high altitudes.