Binge-watching YouTube might be considered a waste of time by some, but for CEO Matthew Anderson it provided the inspiration for a thriving Vancouver company.
“I worked in finance for basically 10 years of my life, but it was always a hunger of mine to get into entrepreneurship,” the UBC grad tells the Georgia Straight on the line from the company’s office at SFU Venture Labs.
“I had a bajillion different ideas in my mind—everything from coffee shops to clothing lines to logistics—and I was enthusiastic about all of them. But I had this thing where whenever I couldn’t sleep, I would stay up and watch YouTube videos, and I almost always watched things on robots. I loved them. So one night I was watching these videos and I had a moment when I realized that it was where my passion is.”
After heading back to school at UBC and taking as many online courses as he could in physics and robotics, the ex-accountant began studying up on the technical side of his newfound idea. A self-described “wannabe engineer”, Anderson teamed up with experts in the field to bring his vision to life. Mirroring the developments of giants like Waymo and Uber, he and his employees started to make their own autonomous vehicles, but geared them toward indoor environments rather than outdoor roads. They named the company A & K Robotics.
“We started as a computer-vision technology,” says Anderson, discussing the ways that machines can be trained to see and understand images. “Four years ago, we got a Logitech webcam from Craigslist and stuck it onto this platform with wheels that we built. It looked up at the ceiling to identify features visually. It had very high accuracy in the indoor environment, and it worked very well in the lab.
“We took that and said, ‘How do we make this work in the real world?’ We had to add in a bunch of other types of sensors and make it much more robust and reliable. Now the product is a brain that we can put onto anything with wheels and turn that thing into a self-driving vehicle.”
The first area the A & K Robotics team targeted was janitorial machinery. Transforming industrial cleaning equipment into what is, in essence, a giant, self-navigating Roomba, the company found success serving environments like shopping malls and schools. Able to safely steer around any obstacle, including moving people, the augmented machines use artificial intelligence to avoid collisions and stay on course, even in busy areas.
“The very first time, a person will teach the robot where to go,” Anderson says. “As a person is pushing it or driving it, it’s learning the path, and then it’s able to redo that path on its own in the future. In the case of janitorial equipment, a janitor knows the best path or the best pattern of how it should be cleaning. So they clean as they would do on a normal day, and the machine is able to repeat it afterward. You bring it out, put water in it, and it does its job.”
Finally out of stealth mode after four years of development, A & K Robotics is looking toward tackling a second market. Able to transform any moving machine into an indoor self-driving vehicle, the company is aiming for its next creation to offer freedom and independence to people who face mobility challenges.
“There are so many uses,” Anderson says. “It’s senior care homes, it’s hospitals, it’s transportation networks. There are museums and art galleries. There are a lot of applications, and we have plans for all of those.
First up on the company’s radar is making it easier for people to get between gates at airports.
“Say you’ve broken your leg or find it hard to get around,” Anderson imagines. “You land after a flight, get off your plane, and hobble off. You can walk up to one of these self-driving chairs and sit down. You scan your boarding pass, and it will automatically take you from the gate you’re at to the gate that you’re going to. It adds value right away to people who would otherwise face challenges in terms of waiting for a really long time, being too shy to ask for help, and eventually missing their flights.”
Now ready to place A & K Robotics in the public eye for the first time, Anderson is proud to advertise that his company’s self-described “iconic product” is made in Canada.
“It’s about time people realize that this kind of stuff is coming out of Vancouver,” he says.
Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays