This Markham company brings machines to life

Even as a child, Vivek Burhanpurkar wanted to do “the most difficult thing possible”. With a love for technology inspired in part by R2-D2 in star wars, Burhanpurkar was determined to make at least one aspect of science fiction a reality: a world full of intelligent robots.

As an electrical engineering student at the University of Toronto in the 1980s, Burhanpurkar laid the groundwork by writing the world’s first university thesis on self-driving technology for unmapped interior areas. Now 58, Burhanpurkar is CEO of Cyberworks, a Markham-based robotics company. But the cultural reference to which he came closest is less star wars that Fancy — bring life to inanimate objects.

Cyberworks has developed a technology called Retrofit Autonomous Vehicle System that transforms rudimentary devices – wheelchairs, industrial floor cleaners and warehouse tugs – into intelligent autonomous vehicles. The result is machines that seem to have a mind of their own (and places to go – as they glide through offices and warehouses, they can feel like they’re taking a break).

Cyberworks modernizes ordinary machines in two ways. In one scenario, the company licenses its technology to equipment manufacturers who install the necessary sensors, cameras and touchscreens on their products during the assembly process. The finished machine is slightly different from a regular machine – for example, there may be a pole rising from the back of a machine containing a laser scanner that continuously maps the environment.

Cyberworks can also retrofit existing fleets of conventional equipment. This method, however, is more difficult, because as Burhanpurkar says, “we have to take them apart, put in all the sensors and computers, and install all the wiring.”

Each device is equipped with multiple depth-sensing cameras, Burhanpurkar explains. “It tells us where everything is around the self-driving vehicle so it can figure out how to get from A to B or how to get around an obstacle that might be in its way.” If a person were to jump in front of the vehicle, it would react by stopping and/or turning in a fraction of a second.

The price of depth-sensing cameras has dropped precipitously in recent years, dropping from around $20,000 to a few hundred dollars each. “That was a huge factor for self-driving technology to be commercially viable, it has to be available at a price people can afford,” he says.

Helping Patients Navigate Hospitals

Cyberworks is one of the world’s leading companies producing robotic wheelchairs – a market that is set to explode, thanks to the growing percentage of the population with mobility issues. According to a recent analysis, the global robotic wheelchair market was worth more than US$114 million in 2021 and is expected to triple by 2032.

When Patrik Rogalla, professor of radiology at Toronto General Hospital, heard about Cyberworks wheelchairs, he thought it might be an answer to the persistent problem of moving patients through complex hospital layouts.

“When I was in the United States, I once told my supervisors that it was possible to fly the Concorde to Germany and get a patient scanned faster than having them go down a floor,” Rogalla explains. “It’s no different here in Canada — or anywhere else.

In 2019, Rogalla and Burhanpurkar started collaborating to test the wheelchair at TGH. As a result, several changes were made, including the addition of a seat belt and a touch screen on the back so an operator could observe it during testing and access computer controls. For Rogalla, the experience is invaluable. “The beauty of this solution is that it doesn’t require a lot of internal investment,” he says. “It’s pretty much accepting the infrastructure as is.”

The Cyberworks wheelchair can even handle elevators. “Most elevators can be equipped with Wi-Fi access,” says Burhanpurkar. “So instead of pressing buttons, the wheelchair can request a floor using Wi-Fi.”

Rogalla believes the technology will drive patient satisfaction. “Health care has traditionally been very conservative, and it has to be that way,” he says. “But the technology will come no matter what, there’s no doubt about that. If we could look ahead to the next 20 or 30 years, that will be the norm. It is impossible for navigation to stop in front of the hospital.

The potential applications of Cyberworks technology extend far beyond healthcare. Airports and airlines have approached the company. And Fernlea Greenhouse, one of North America’s largest flower growers, has 18 self-contained Cyberworks tugs in its Ontario outpost. Burhanpurkar says the company’s technology also guides the industrial floor cleaners used by one of the world’s largest commercial property owners.

“We wanted a technology that was universal, that could be applied to anything,” says Burhanpurkar. “All of our products use the same core technology, and we can apply it to entirely new products in weeks rather than years.”

Nora Underwood writes about technology for MaRS. Torstar, the parent company of the Toronto Star, has partnered with MaRS to shine a light on innovation in Canadian business.

Disclaimer This content has been produced in partnership and therefore may not meet the standards of impartial or independent journalism.