Ryerson partners with software firm Soti on $20-million autonomous drone venture

Soti president and CEO Carl Rodrigues. Soti

Ryerson University has signed an agreement with Mississauga, Ont.-based technology firm Soti to help develop autonomous drones through the firm’s new aerospace division. Soti is allocating $20 million to start the venture, with additional funding for Ryerson. 

The group is targeting early adopters in the medical industry and in the search-and-rescue space. The initiative comes as the federal government encourages more drone R&D in Canada, and as the Toronto-based university increasingly leans on private-sector partnerships to fund its research.

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Talking Point

Soti is spending $2.5 million to fund a research chair from Ryerson University over five years as part of the Mississauga, Ont.-based tech firm’s new $20-million aerospace initiative. The agreement includes co-op and training opportunities for students and the potential for more funding as needed. The project will focus on developing drones for the medical and search-and-rescue sectors. 

Ryerson will lead the division’s research, with a soon-to-be-named research chair spearheading the university’s role in the endeavor. The contract includes $2.5 million, the bulk of which will fund the chair over a five-year term. There’s an option for more funding “for research projects that have not been identified at this point, to create some agility and flexibility as things develop,” said Steven Liss, vice-president of research and innovation at Ryerson. The agreement also carves out co-op and training opportunities for students, as Soti aims to build its talent pipeline from the school’s faculties of science and engineering. 

Soti president and CEO Carl Rodrigues said the drone project fits with the company’s focus on mobility technology and managing smart devices. The firm creates software and products—and designs and manages apps—that let teams monitor connected devices remotely. Rodrigues, a computer scientist by training, incorporated the company in 1995. By 2001, he had developed software that let users control their mobile devices from their laptops, a system that became the catalyst of Soti’s core business offering. Today, Soti has some 1,200 employees across 12 offices—including in Ireland, Sweden, Australia, India and Japan—and counts among its 17,000 customers American Airlines, Delivery Hero and the Canadian Automobile Association. Rodrigues said the privately owned company is on track to generate about $200 million in annual revenue and has never taken outside investment. “We’re constantly growing and profitable,” he said. 

Rodrigues said he’s been tinkering with the drone technology for about three years. In April, he assembled the aerospace group—a team of about 30 people working on hardware, vision software and voice intelligence. 

The CEO approached Ryerson in mid-summer with a proposal to partner on the initiative. Liss said the university had worked informally with Rodrigues in the past on a cybersecurity initiative that became the school’s Rogers Cybersecurity Catalyst, a training and innovation hub in Brampton, Ont. “With the familiarity [Soti] had with Ryerson and our interest in trying to figure out how to work with them more formally, the aerospace initiative created a good opportunity.” 

Soti is focusing its technology on indoor use cases. Rodrigues said early applications of the autonomous drones, which measure about eight inches in diameter, will be in medical care settings like long-term-care facilities, where they can monitor patients’ needs and assist staff. Soti is also eyeing the search and rescue sector. “You could send a drone to inspect a mine shaft collapse, for example, it would create a 3D map that would show if there are humans inside and how to navigate to them,” said Rodrigues. Monitoring inventory and operations in warehouses and factories is another application, said the CEO. 

Ryerson, meanwhile, is hoping the partnership with Soti will help attract additional funding to its aerospace department from Ottawa. Last year, Transport Canada launched a five-year plan in partnership with the National Research Council to boost research and development for drone technology in Canada. “We’re expecting to leverage commitments [from Soti] to get federal funding through the [National Research Council] Alliance program, for example,” said Liss.

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Liss noted that private-sector partnerships have been key to growing Ryerson’s research funding. In the past four years, he said the school saw R&D funding increase by 65 per cent. “At the heart of this is a real strong, underlying commitment to these partnerships.” While the provincial government has somewhat reduced its research funding for Ontario universities since 2014, funding from the private sector has increased more than 20 per cent over that period. 

Rodrigues expects to have a prototype of the drone ready by December and have demos available for prospective customers to test towards the end of 2021.