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This Queen’s University-based research institute focuses on everything from autonomous vehicles to field robots.

If you picture a building buzzing with brilliant minds — a big, open, Google-esque place with whiteboards everywhere and robots running around — you’ll have an idea of what Ingenuity Labs at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., looks like. “If you go in there today, you’ll see a bunch of people working on robots and building things. It’s a collision space where people get together and think up crazy ideas for how we can apply artificial intelligence (AI) in society,” says Joshua Marshall, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university.

This multidisciplinary research institute opened in the fall of 2018 after a large philanthropic gift from Queen’s alumnus Bruce Mitchell. It allowed the team to start the institute and build their 13,000-square-foot building. “Our focus is on combining AI, robotics and human interaction to create future intelligence systems, robotics and machines that can help people do their everyday tasks, whether that’s in the home, in a healthcare setting or in transportation, for example,” Marshall explains. “We’re a group that brings core expertise in AI and robotics to bear on a whole bunch of interesting problems for people and industries, and we’re made up of a diverse mix of people in engineering and applied science disciplines (such as computer scientists and mechanical engineers), as well as people interested in robotics who are building smart devices. There are also business development experts and medical researchers, and people in law and education who help these core experts. Ingenuity Labs is interested in three main themes: smart environments and infrastructure, human sensing and assistive devices and intelligent mobile systems, and they work to promote interdisciplinary collaboration, train researchers and incubate new technologies. 

Some of the new technologies the institute’s researchers are working on focuses on autonomous vehicles — there’s plenty going on in this sector. “One really fun thing we’re looking forward to this fall is participating in General Motors’ AutoDrive Challenge, in collaboration with the Society of Automotive Engineers,” says Marshall. The three-year competition tasks students to develop a fully autonomous driving passenger vehicle, and the goal is for it to navigate an urban driving course. “We were one of two groups selected to participate from Canada, and there are eight others from across the United States. It’s probably going to involve 100 graduate and undergraduate students and research faculty. GM is sending us a car, so that’s really exciting for us.”

3d rendering robotic arm or robot hand isolated

“We’re excited about doing more about robotics and AI on the water, but autonomous vehicles on public roads is something everyone’s paying attention to,” says Marshall.

The group has been doing a lot of research in off-road robotics and autonomous vehicles over the last number of years. There’s been a concentration on the mining industry, where Marshall says the group is working on developing autonomous vehicles for strange environments, like driving underground where there’s no GPS. “Some of those technologies are spinning off now onto surface vehicle technology. For example, when you drive through a large metropolitan city, you might lose GPS in areas such as tunnels, so some of the work that was pioneered in the underground is starting to trickle off and get used for urban robotic applications, like infrastructure inspection.” Marshall says Ingenuity Labs has seen a huge uptick in Canadian companies interested in deploying autonomous vehicles, and not just on public roads but in commercial settings like construction sites. “That’s been one of the areas where we’ve had a niche and we’ve seen some pretty interesting applications,” says Marshall. One of the professors at the institute, Ali Etemad, has been studying the perception of riders in autonomous vehicles. “He’s trying to understand how people feel and react in autonomous vehicles. So, if you’re an owner and your car is in autonomous mode, he’s interested in understanding how the driver or the non-driver is seeing the environment, and he wants to see what he can glean from that information to inform the autonomous vehicle system,” says Marshall. “He has a simulator where he puts human subjects inside and observes them using cameras and tries to understand their experience, then he puts that feedback into the autonomous vehicle systems.”

When it comes to the day autonomous vehicles will hit the highway and we’ll see platoons of automobiles working together on public roadways, Marshall says this is the next step, and we’re likely to see it sooner than we think. “Despite many years of work, we still don’t have our cars picking up platoons and driving on the 401. I don’t know when I see this happening, but I can tell you it’s been a vision since the 1990s in California. It’s not a new idea, but how close are we to actually seeing this happening? I think it’s something that could happen sooner than some of the other applications with autonomous vehicles because highways are a lot easier to navigate than regular roads. It’s probably not something that’s too far down the road, since we already have, for example, adaptive cruise control on a lot of cars and it’s a matter of hooking those up with the autonomous vehicle systems.”

Ingenuity Labs is also working to build a hub in Kingston for research where they can do bigger-scale field and service robotics, like at an actual construction site. They’re hoping to build a test track where they can have autonomous vehicles run and an indoor/outdoor facility where they can fly unmanned aerial vehicles. “There aren’t a lot of universities in Canada that have big indoor/outdoor spaces for test tracks. We’re putting together a big Canada Foundation for Innovation proposal for infrastructure to bring people together from across Eastern Ontario,” says Marshall. “We’re excited about doing more about robotics and AI on the water, but autonomous vehicles on public roads is something everyone’s paying attention to.”

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