RCAF partners with Labforge on security technology

News Article / May 15, 2018

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Communitech is a Kitchener, Ontario, public-private innovation hub that supports a community of more than 1400 companies. The Communitech Hub, a 7,440-plus-square-metre facility dedicated to world-leading innovation, brings together key players—from startups and global brands to government agencies, academic institutions, tech incubators and accelerators—to create an environment of collaboration like no other.

By Craig Daniels

Last summer, just a few weeks after the Royal Canadian Air Force opened The Flight Deck, its corporate innovation lab at Communitech, Captain Jean Lebouthillier decided to go on a recce – a reconnaissance action, something Canadian Armed Forces personnel routinely undertake in order to get the lay of the land and assess a situation before embarking on a mission or project.

In this case, the recce was of the local, and walking, variety. Captain Lebouthillier, newly installed as the RCAF’s acting lab director, was keen to get to know his “neighbours” at Communitech. As he walked through the University of Waterloo Velocity space on the first floor, a startup called Labforge caught his eye.

Labforge is a four-year-old company that makes an AI (Artificial Intelligence)-fuelled sensing and security platform capable of monitoring activity and detecting threats from land and air. The RCAF just happens to be in the business of, among other things, monitoring activity and detecting threats from land and air.

The Captain went back to his desk and promptly wrote a one-page summary about Labforge’s product, and fired it up the chain of command.

Fast-forward to March 19, 2018, when Labforge received word that, on the strength of the RCAF’s interest in its product, it had gained acceptance into the federal government’s Build in Canada Innovation Program (BCIP), which connects startups with federal government departments looking to innovate. Labforge will receive $1 million from BCIP, and the RCAF will gain access to Labforge’s sensor product for testing, which it hopes to begin at some of its facilities here in Canada as early as late spring 2018.

“[This] has the potential to change things – a lot,” says Major James Pierotti, innovation section head with the RCAF’s Aerospace Warfare Centre at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ontario.

For their part, Labforge’s team members are, as you would imagine, delighted with the RCAF partnership. The agreement not only gets them access to capital, but also provides them with a reference customer for their product. “This is great for us in terms of showcasing our capabilities in a harsh environment,” says Labforge chief executive officer Yassir Rizwan. “We’ve built a really good relationship with the air force. The Flight Deck has been extremely helpful.”

The RCAF opened The Flight Deck with the twin aims of retooling the way it approaches technology and being on the lookout for startups that can help it solve real-world problems.

Labforge’s technology appears to fit the bill, and then some.

Its product is able to distinguish between friend and foe, can identify threats from the air as well as land, and its sensors are quick and easy to deploy. When combined with its intelligent user interface, the system is capable of painting a real-time electronic picture of an environment, giving its users instant situational awareness.

It’s a giant leap in capability from that provided by an attendant staring into a traditional video camera monitor or series of monitors. Labforge’s product doesn’t need to go for coffee, doesn’t need to sleep, and doesn’t glaze over after hours of monotonous staring at a screen. And not only does the product provide far better security and awareness, but it also provides those results with far fewer personnel.

“Imagine we’ve got a helicopter footprint [deployed] somewhere, and we need to provide force protection,” Major Pierotti says. “We need to make sure those assets are secure, day and night, 24/7. So, how is that currently conducted? Depending on the footprint, we could have up to a platoon of Army personnel that do regular patrols. Or set up closed-circuit TV cameras, and then we’ve got someone monitoring and looking at each camera. So, personnel-intensive at a time when personnel is one of our big [issues]. We’re short on numbers.

“The potential benefit of this technology is to reduce the number of people that are involved in monitoring and responding to threats against our aircraft.”

Sergeant Ted Van Hezewyk, The Flight Deck’s concept development & experimentation innovation supervisor, says he can envision the technology being used at existing RCAF bases such as the one in Cold Lake, Alberta, to keep an eye on threats as relatively benign as wildlife breaking through a perimeter fence, as well as during aircraft deployments overseas, where the stakes are higher. The sensors are portable, easy to deploy and relatively inexpensive.

“If somebody shoots [a sensor], or one freezes or breaks, you’ve got immediate redundancy,” says Major Pierotti. “[If you need to replace a sensor], you can just strap it to a tree or strap it to a fence. This quick-and-easy replacement, movement, portability, is absolutely game-changing, or potentially game-changing, from our perspective.

“We want to test if that is true.”

Another key capability of the product is its ability to detect threats from the air, something with which a traditional video monitoring system can’t cope. “This [technology] makes it that much easier to recognize UASs, or unmanned aerial systems, which is a big deal,” Major Pierotti says. “It potentially gives you the time you need to do something about [an aerial threat].

“That’s why we’re deeply interested.”

Rizwan is hopeful of eventually selling Labforge’s product to power plants, solar farms, seaports and warehouses. “We've already started conversations with them,” he says, “and now those conversations become a lot easier.”

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