Metro Vancouver-based Advanced Intelligent Systems makes self-driving robots for greenhouses

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      Robots and artificial intelligence, headlines suggest, are poised to steal people’s jobs. With the rise of “Industry 4.0”—where manufacturing robots can collect data and make their own decisions about how to optimize the production line—many are worried that blue-collar professions might be on the out.

      For Metro Vancouver–based company Advanced Intelligent Systems (AIS), though, creating machines that complement rather than displace human workers is the cornerstone of its business. In the opinion of CEO Afshin Doust, robots and AI should be used to combat the dangers involved in manual labour.

      “We pride ourselves in being a practical robotics company,” he tells the Georgia Straight on the line from Burnaby. “We look at labour-intensive tasks that nobody wants to do, and we try to automate those in order to address the shortage of labour in industries that are shrinking or are having a difficult time filling those positions.…What we want to do is supplement those low-paying, labour-intensive jobs. For example, taking luggage and putting it onto a cart at an airport, or doing the initial exploration of a mine before it is safe, or moving plant pots.”

      The company’s first set of products is geared toward that objective. AIS began life in 2013 as a business that dealt in robot parts. After a time, the founders were approached by a plant nursery looking to mechanize some of its more repetitive tasks. The company’s leaders reached out to Doust as a consultant to help with the business, inspiring him to join the project as the CEO and refound the company in 2016. Together, they created a machine named Bigtop: an unmanned robotic vehicle that automates the movement of potted plants in nurseries and greenhouses.

      Transporting pots is surprisingly lucrative. The plants must be respaced in order to be aired, packaged, or shipped, or a collection of pots must be reorganized when certain plants are picked up off a shop floor. By Doust’s estimations at last year’s #BCTECHSummit, the industry employs roughly 97,000 full-time staffers in North America and Europe just to move pots—a job that can leave workers with injuries from heavy lifting. Unsurprisingly, companies find it difficult to fill open roles.

      “One of our people actually went online and applied [as the Bigtop robot] for an opening for someone to work in the nursery to move pots,” Doust recalls. “That position wasn’t filled for about four months. So the person called and wanted to interview our robot. That’s exactly the business model we have. We don’t sell them—Bigtop is for hire. You take it, you use it, and you pay for the work that it does.”

      The Bigtop robot is one of the company's first creations, and is able to autonomously move pot plants.

      As well as perfecting its plant spacer, AIS is focusing on developing different modules for the vehicle. The company has created a pruning add-on, for instance, that picks up plants, trims them, and puts them back. It is also working on an artificial-intelligence feature that determines whether plants are healthy by taking a picture of the leaves and comparing it to a database of images. That discovery can be quickly reported to the farmer.

      The company plans to produce 120 Bigtop robots this year, and Doust hopes to build even more by the end of 2020. In the meantime, AIS is working on creating robots for other businesses, including airports, warehouses, and fulfillment centres. The company has so far filed 19 patents and has 24 more waiting to process—a level of innovation Doust attributes to the engineering talent present in the Metro Vancouver region.

      “I think that Vancouver is a great place for robotics and for AI,” he says. “We have a lot of amazing talent that comes out of our universities. It’s a great place to be for a startup because of all the government support that exists. We hire a lot of people from SFU, and we hire a lot of people from BCIT, and work collaboratively with many universities.”

      Kate Wilson is the Technology Editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSays