'Snow-bot' automated plow rolls out in Canada for the 1st time

A self-driving snow plow hit the ground in Grande Prairie, Alta., this week, making the city near the B.C. border the first in Canada to send the new device into action.

Dubbed a "snow-bot", the T3-1000 was put to work clearing a popular seven-kilometre walking trail around the Bear Creek reservoir. 

"The garage door opens, it pulls out about four feet, press the run button and it just goes from there," city spokesperson Rory Tarant said in an interview with CBC Daybreak North.

Grande Prairie is the first Canadian city to try out the T3-1000, which is manufactured by Colorado-based Left Hand Robotics.

Tarant said in a time of ever-tightening municipal budgets, having a self-driving machine to take on simple tasks frees up city crews to handle more complex problems.

"Obviously, it can't be as perceptive as [a person], but it does a really good job on the longer, more monotonous trails," Tarant said.

The machine uses GPS, radar and 360-degree cameras to follow a pre-programmed path and to avoid humans and other potential obstacles.

It's also limited in how much snow it can clear: Anything deeper than eight centimetres requires human intervention.

"That's where you'll need a plow truck or one of the larger pieces of equipment," Tarant said.

Optimism and concern over automation

Despite these limitations, automation is being touted as a way to enhance city services without having to budget for additional staff members.

But it's also led to concern from unions representing the people traditionally tasked with mowing lawns and clearing streets.

Left Hand Robotics

The City of Edmonton has been experimenting with robotic groundskeepers, adding two self-driving lawn mowers to their fleet of equipment in 2018 and purchasing a T3-1000 earlier this year.

At that time, CUPE 30 president Mike Scott told CBC he was concerned automation could impact his employees in the future, as self-driving technology becomes more sophisticated and more widely available.

Meanwhile, Winnipeg's Richardson International Airport has developed its own self-driving snow plow and Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton are all looking into self-driving transit equipment.

The T3-1000 is already in use in some U.S. cities and has attracted lots of interest from other municipalities, said Roy Clark of Clark's Supply and Service Ltd., the Canadian dealer for Left Hand Robotics.

Clark said since he started selling the T3-1000 earlier this year, he's had lots of calls from communities interested in trying out the technology.

"They see it on YouTube, I guess, and it's something different," he said. "It's pretty cool."

Clark said the price for the machine along with all its attachments is about $100,000, and that in the summer it can be converted into a self-driving lawn mower.

Tarant said if the Grande Prairie pilot project works out, the T3-1000 will be out mowing city sports fields this summer and eventually will be responsible for clearing, sanding and salting the entire 13-kilometre network of Muskoseepi Park trails in the winter. 

"The intent is to create capacity," he said. "If things work out well, we won't need additional staff as our parks systems grow over time."

 

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