These robots are on a mission – to make sidewalk tasks more efficient, sustainable

By Taylor Pace

If you live in Waterloo Region, over the past two years you may have noticed an odd-looking, six-wheeled robot rolling down the sidewalk at some point. 

These robots, created by Kitchener-based Top Hat Robotics, are the world’s first completely electronic robots for sidewalk tasks like inspections and snow plowing. 

“Currently, we are the world's only commercial-ready, 100 per cent electric sidewalk robots for these tasks,” said Tony Nguyen, sales and development lead at Top Hat Robotics. “Our goal is to be the world’s clear leader in sustainable, work-related sidewalk robotics.”

But why are robotics needed for tasks like these?  

“Legacy work equipment is highly polluting; we are helping fight climate change through providing more sustainable work equipment that is 100 per cent electric,” Nguyen said. 

The company launched in October 2019 with that in mind: they wanted to make tasks like sidewalk inspections, snow plowing, salting, and grass cutting, more sustainable. 

For sidewalk inspections, they will usually deploy two robots at a time until the inspections are done. The robots are each accompanied by a trained chaperone during inspections, acting as a “secondary source of data,” taking pictures of any deficiencies they come across, and mapping out the city’s sidewalks for future planning projects.

The hard manual labour required for these jobs can be “very draining for humans.” 

“We want to free up employees from this type of work so that they can focus their energy and resources on other types of work that are more enjoyable & better-suited for humans,” Nguyen said. 

For example, he explained that waking up at 2 a.m. to clear snow outside for five to 15 hours straight, and doing that 25 to 40 times in a season is incredibly demanding, and “not a job best suited for humans.”

“That is what sidewalk snow clearing is. Dull, dirty and dangerous tasks are better suited to robots,” he said.

In addition, using robots for these tasks allows the city to get inspections done “in less time than normal,” and allows their staff “to be reassigned to higher-value projects.”

A typical inspection would take several months, however, the robots are able to do it in about two weeks. 

Last year alone, 17 different municipalities throughout Ontario used the robots for sidewalk inspections, including the City of Kitchener, and Nguyen says they plan on continuing to build relations with other municipalities as their company grows. 

In May, the robots were spotted inspecting sidewalks in Stratford. Those inspections have since finished, and according to Nguyen, they were a “great success.”
“There has been lots of curiosity about the robots during inspections and for the most part people are amazed at the technology,” he said, adding that the response from the public has been very positive. 

Kitchener residents can expect to see them roaming the streets over the next little while as they perform inspections for the City of Kitchener.

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