From a lab-based project to a global start-up, alumni-led Copperstone Technologies a game changer in environmental monitoring

New amphibious robot design a match for any industrial terrain, especially those hazardous to humans.

Donna McKinnon - 19 January 2023

When Nicolas Olmedo (‘20 PhD) was an undergraduate in engineering, it wasn’t until he observed a group of second year students building a car from the ground up that he knew what he wanted to do. “How can I not do that?” he said, and the next day he switched his application from biomedical to mechanical engineering. 

Olmedo’s passion for building things has never waned. Now, as co-founder & CTO at Copperstone Technologies, he and his team are forging new territory in robotic vehicle design and construction for the oil, gas and mining industries.

Copperstone is an outgrowth of a project Olmedo and colleagues Jamie Yuen (‘14 MSc) Stephen Dwyer (‘17 MSc) began as students in Michael Lipsett’s lab in mechanical engineering. The trio met as undergraduates in the University of Alberta Aerial Robotics Group, but it wasn’t until their graduate program that they began to see real world applications for their research.   

“In the lab, we worked on mine waste tailings problems, environmental monitoring, and the development of different kinds of robots to access those terrains,” says Olmedo. “At the same time, we were working on a Mitacs project for a GPS tracking device, and a representative from a geotechnical services company visited the lab. He explained the problem they were having collecting measurements and samples in the tailings ponds and said if we built something, they would take us to the oil sands to try it out.” 

The request lined up with the completion of the GPS tracking device, and with earnings saved from the project, Copperstone was born (named after a rock display in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences!) and the trio began to investigate possible solutions. 

“We decided to try out this propulsion system with screws, because we thought it would work on that terrain,” says Olmedo. “We built the prototype and successfully performed the demonstration, and still work with many of the same partner companies.”  

Copperstone’s HELIX amphibious robots are able to propel across inaccessible and often hazardous terrain that is either too toxic or too difficult for humans to traverse using patented, screw-shaped pontoons to float on water or scroll across any topography, including mud, snow, ice and rocks. 

It is a game changer in terms of environmental monitoring.

As Olmedo explains, each rover can be customized for clients and may be operated remotely or programmed to work autonomously. If not purchased directly, the rovers can be contracted out, in which case Copperstone employees are responsible for deploying and operating them. 

The HELIX Neptune robot, for instance, is primarily designed to be used in water. Equipped with sonar, HELIX Neptune is able to collect samples and measure the depth of a deposit as it moves around on autopilot, creating a 3D model of what lies below the surface. It is typically used by mine operators to calculate the volume of tailings, which enables companies to make decisions regarding projections and reclamation.    

In December, Copperstone secured 3.5 million USD in growth capital from WindSail Capital Group, a Boston-based investment firm focused on energy innovation and sustainability. The investment unlocked support from Alberta Jobs and Growth Program and the Mining Innovation Commercialization Accelerator for $2.3 million USD in additional capital.

“Mining is a global industry,” says Jamie Yuen, Chief Engineer at Copperstone, adding that while the company Initially served the oil and gas industry exclusively, Copperstone’s growing roster of international clients are increasingly from the metal mining industry — specifically copper, gold, silver, nickel and platinum.  

“As a company, there are always new things to learn, new robotic vehicles to build, but there's also been the other side of trying to figure out how to structure it as a business,” says Yuen. “One of the most interesting things has been the breadth of experiences we’ve shared, and I think the proudest moments are when we’ve rolled a new rover out of the shop.” 

In the short term, says Olmedo, Copperstone is aiming for a fleet of amphibious robots with many units in production for 2023. 

“This includes increasing the number and size of our robots, but also building out our production team,” says Olmedo. “Right now, our biggest rover is limited to its mass, but we know that we could reach deeper and push harder with a bigger robot. Overall, we are learning so much with these hard terrestrial applications and I think at some point that technology will have applications in space.”

Last year, Olmedo was one of five recipients of the 2022 Mitacs Entrepreneur Award, where he won the Outstanding Entrepreneur award for groundbreaking intelligent cleantech robots. The Mitacs awards celebrate start-up companies founded by outstanding former Mitacs program participants who have gone on to become leading entrepreneurs and business owners in their respective fields.

“When I hear entrepreneurship, I associate it with somebody who wants to make it in business, but I feel it's more about the fun of doing it,” says Olmedo. “I’m definitely proud of the team we built, and the amount of work they’ve put into the company. At the beginning, there were some rough times and we had to work so much, but having survived that, I think we are all very proud of what we’ve achieved so far.”