Area X.O: Driving the Future of Connected and Autonomous Technology Testing in All Four Seasons

April 26, 2021

As Canada’s Capital ushered in a final blast of winter in late April, it was a regular day at Area X.O. The team was excited about the snow, dipping temperatures and wind gusting through the 1,860-acre facility. For innovators driving the future, Ottawa’s four-season climate packs a high-value punch. It enables them to put their technologies to the test in every type of weather, including snow, sleet and ice, increase safety, and facilitate future adoption.


Area X.O – Putting Technology to the Test in Wicked Winter Weather and Every Season

Autonomous Rover at Area X.O

“If you’re looking to drive the future of smart mobility, connectivity and autonomy, that’s why you come to Area X.O,” says Michael Tremblay, President and CEO of Invest Ottawa and Area X.O, the futureplex of innovation and collaboration. “It is critical to rigorously test these innovations and evaluate the performance in all weather conditions to ensure safety and future implementation. This includes extreme winter conditions, temperatures and harsh climates. What better place to do it than Canada’s Capital?“

This is just one of the reasons Ottawa served as an ideal backdrop for the virtual workshop, The Chilling Challenge of Winter Testing on April 7, 2021. Hosted by the National Research Council Canada and Transport Canada, this online event aimed to continue building a community of practice for intelligent transportation systems living labs in Canada. It brought together a broad cross-section of stakeholders spanning industry, government and academia. It enabled participants to safely explore how Area X.O addresses key smart mobility R&D, testing and adoption challenges in every season – including winter.

Enter Kelly Daize, Director of Business Development and Sonya Shorey, Vice President of Strategy, Marketing and Communications for Invest Ottawa and Area X.O. To create an interactive, virtual experience, the duo took the group on a guided virtual tour of the futureplex of innovation and collaboration. The narrated video montage that provided an overview of the facilities. It showcased the different technology capabilities that comprise the interconnected mini city at its 1,866-acre site. This enabled the group to take a virtual step inside and explore the advantages and differentiators of this facility first-hand.


Area X.O Advantages – Combining Climate, Top Tech Capabilities and Talent

Established and operated by Invest Ottawa, Area X.O is a technology playground that enables innovators, SMEs, multinationals and government partners to create, test and demonstrate next generation smart mobility, autonomy and connected technologies.

Diverse Weather Conditions and Climate

One of the coldest capital cities in the world, Ottawa’s diverse climate creates an ideal environment to test the performance of technologies in every type of weather condition. Throughout the year, Area X.O users develop, test, validate and demonstrate their innovations in a true four-season climate with temperatures that range from -39C to 39 degrees Celsius. Ottawa experiences blistering hot sunny days; thunderstorms, snow, sleet and ice storms; and wicked Arctic blasts with dramatic wind chills.

This creates an ideal R&D environment for smart mobility, connectivity and autonomy innovators. It allows them to gain even greater data, insight, and learnings on the performance and safety of their technology in diverse conditions, and for different markets. Clients put the capabilities of Area X.O to work to address seize new opportunities, accelerate commercialization and address key challenges in all four seasons. These include:

  • Command Centre at Area X.OCAV and smart mobility operations in inclement weather such as snow, ice, fog, and high winds
  • The development of sensors and systems that pinpoint the location of hidden objects (such as seeing around corners to spot moving people, vulnerable road users and/or objects)
  • Cybersecurity – AVs, smart infrastructure, and the Internet of Things
  • Interoperability the ability of computer systems or software to exchange, use and analyze sensor-generated data
  • Communication – Vehicle to Everything (V2X); Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V), Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I city), Vehicle-to-Network (GPS/ 4G/ 5G, etc.)

“Ottawa weather is very unpredictable and very diverse. This creates a competitive advantage for our region, and the innovators we serve at Area X.O,” says Daize. “It is critical to test, validate and demonstrate the performance and efficacy of sensors and related smart mobility technologies in all conditions. We are currently executing a project on vulnerable road users at intersections. It is really important to test this technology in all weather and lighting conditions to ensure the safety of citizens on our streets.”

One of the Most Advanced Communications Infrastructures in the World

A four-season climate is just one of the key differentiators at Area X.O that enables rigorous testing and safety. Combining diverse expertise with Ottawa’s telecom and cybersecurity strengths as a global tech hub, this futureplex operates one of the most advanced communication test infrastructures in the world. Companies innovating in sectors such as smart mobility, telecom, smart cities, defence, public safety and smart agriculture, have access to its GPS,4G LET, Wi-Fi, LoRa, WAN, TV White Space, 5G (including millimetre wave) and satellite communication systems.

“This infrastructure is a key differentiator that helps innovators translate ideas into export-ready solutions”, says Sonya Shorey, Vice President, Strategy, Marketing and Communications, Invest Ottawa and Area X.O. “Connected and autonomous driving, connectivity, electrification, and shared mobility technologies create immense opportunity for our economy and society during and beyond the pandemic. The global market for smart mobility alone is expected to reach $91 billion by 2026. Innovators require access to leading edge communications capabilities, expertise and a four-season test environment to develop 5G-ready technologies for different global markets. These elements are essential to create, validate and export smart mobility V2X technologies that perform in any climate safely and securely. We bring these strengths to bear at Area X.O.”

Safety is the top priority and North Star for Area X.O in every season. It has guided the design and development of this facility; the approach to development, testing and implementation of new technologies; and client and project management. For example, Area X.O is comprised of a private testing facility (for tests that cannot be conducted safely on city streets) and a public test track on open city streets in Canada’s largest technology park. This enables companies to test and validate their innovations in a secure, gated facility and then test in a real-world setting when they are ready. According to Daize, “The city has installed a plug-and-play smart intersection in our public test track, making it easy for us to swap technology in and out, and customize it to the needs of our clients. It’s truly a gamechanger for companies to gather real-world data and establish a first use case that demonstrates the impact of their solution in snow, sleet, ice or any weather condition.”

In addition to these facilities in Ottawa, the Area X.O Mobile Command Centre allows Area X.O to hit the road and rapidly deploy communications infrastructure with complete situational awareness. This enables SMEs to test and validate their autonomous products and technology, IOT assets and services in any rural environment, safely and securely.

“This is rapidly deployable infrastructure,” says Daize. “It includes a fully standalone and secure 5G and 4G network that can be deployed anywhere and anytime, and in any weather condition. This will enable the Area X.O team to travel to other locations across Ontario and help SMEs test and validate their technologies. It broadens our reach and maximizes our impact on companies and our economy.”


Top Tech Talent

Ottawa Ave at Area X.OBuoyed by the highest concentration of tech talent per capita in North America and 90 percent of Canada’s telecom R&D, Ottawa is the ideal home for Area X.O. The region boasts more than 100 organizations and companies contributing intelligence and technology to smart mobility solutions of the future. This enables innovators to access unique expertise; a host of startups and scaleups with novel technologies; world-leading tech multinationals such as BlackBerry QNX, Ericsson, Nokia and Microsoft with strong global supply chains; and ready access to regulators (many of whom are less than 20 minutes from the site).

To ensure innovators and firms have access to a strong pipeline of expertise, Area X.O has also launched a CAV Talent Catalyst pilot program in partnership with the Ontario Vehicle Innovation Network (OVIN). This program aims to help participants develop new hands-on skills with industry leaders in smart mobility, Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs), cybersecurity, 5G and related technologies.

Autonomous Pod at Area X.O

“The program will offer participants hands-on learning with cutting-edge technologies, including computer vision, LiDAR, Blackberry Jarvis, 5G communication and other skills, including testing in inclement weather,” says Daize. It will also highlight sensor technology and provide an overview of cybersecurity protocols. Created and delivered together with key industry partners, the CAV Catalyst pilot includes: Accenture, Hexagon (AutonomouStuff), Sensor Cortek, Pleora and VIVA Lab (UOttawa), Aurrigo, EasyMile, BlackBerry QNX, and Nokia.


Innovators and Firms Putting Area X.O to Work to Develop Winter-Ready Solutions

“Being in a snowy and challenging climate is really beneficial for us,” says Chris Keefe, Vice President of Autonomous Programs in North America for Aurrigo, which builds self-driving pods for the ‘first and last mile’ of transportation. “It enables us to better develop technologies that are safe and well suited for all types of weather conditions, expanding our total market. At Area X.O, we have really put our vehicles through the gauntlet of how low we can go on temperature for batteries. We have also tested how our CPUs and ECU units respond to cold weather and how can we make them better. These learnings will ultimately help make the vehicle safer and operate more efficiently.”

Winter conditions at Area X.OJeremy James, President and CTO of FourD Robotics Inc., says using Area X.O allows his company to perform testing in a much more cost-effective way than it could otherwise. FourD has a contract to develop sensor and automation technologies to increase the safety of snowplow operations, which, given that Ottawa spends $80 million a year to plow its 13,600 lane kilometres of roadways, stands to save the city money in damages to citizens’ property and its snowplows. And Area X.O is the perfect place to put the technology to the test.

Christopher Paquette, Manager of Operational Research and Projects at the City of Ottawa is excited about the snowplow project underway at Area X.O.

“The City is always looking for ways to enable innovation and in particular enabling it with our companies in the region,” Paquette said. “This project accentuates how that model could work. It’s enabling my team to evaluate different technology, such as lidar, radar, thermal infrared cameras. This will be huge for detecting objects in the snow, things our operators don’t see.”

Autogardian at Area X.OTenille Houston, COO at SmartCone Technologies and CEO of subsidiary AutoGuardian by SmartCone, said being at Area X.O has contributed greatly to the launch and growth of these firms. She noted that using the test capabilities and facilities — especially in the winter — was incredibly helpful because it brought to light important considerations SmartCone’s engineers hadn’t anticipated. For example, the team had considered how their equipment would operate on city streets but failed to account for the role and impact of snowbanks.

“We have tested in all four seasons. We always have the craziest of conditions during our demo days,” she says.

Grant Courville, Vice President of Products and Strategy at Blackberry QNX, said his company must test for all conditions.

“Engineering is all about solving the tough problems and you see a lot of the testing today that’s happening globally and a lot of it is happening in locations where they don’t have ‘weather,’” he said. “You’ve got to test for all conditions, especially when you’re dealing with automation and autonomous operation. Whether it’s cars or trucks or buses or infrastructure, you’ve got to deal with the really tough problems. It can’t work most of the time — it has to work all of the time.”

Evolving significantly since the launch of the facility in 2019, Area X.O has hosted several cold weather projects.

For example, in November 2020, Area X.O together with Transport Canada, the City of Ottawa, EasyMile, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, and fellow partners, was honoured to host the first on-road electric LSAS trial of its kind in Ontario.

Following a week of vigorous testing at the Area X.O private test facility, the shuttles operated on a 1.5KM route through Tunney’s Pasture campus in the centre of Ottawa. Working closely with health authorities, Area X.O and our many partners performed a variety of tests in real-world conditions. This included the deployment of novel technologies from local startups such as AutoGuardian by SmartCone and RideShark and data assessment from NRC.Low Speed Autonomous Shuttle Project at Tunney's Pasture

Building on the unique capabilities of Area X.O, innovators and firms across the Capital, the outcomes of this trial will support the development, validation and safe implementation of future transportation solutions designed for safety in all climates and weather conditions. During the two-week project, the shuttles performed in sunshine, high winds, rain and light snow. The learnings garnered through this project will support future CAV, shuttle and smart mobility solutions with the potential to create cleaner, safer and more efficient mobility for citizens in urban and rural areas.

Martha Christenson, Head of the Development Unit at Transport Canada, said the trial started with testing on track looking at how the shuttle interacted with various hazardous scenarios in a controlled environment — scenarios such as pedestrians coming out from behind a vehicle that’s obstructing the shuttle’s view.

“The results will really help inform Transport Canada’s contributions to international standards and also to the development of guidance documents for testing automated shuttles in Canada,” she said.


Seize Your Innovation Opportunity in Every Season at Area X.O

“We invite all innovators, technology developers and leaders from industry, government and academia to explore how we can put the unique capabilities of Area X.O to work for you. This includes opportunities to test, validate and demonstrate smart mobility, connectivity and autonomy innovations rigorously in all four seasons and weather conditions,” says Daize.

“Our top priority is to enable and accelerate the safe and secure development and implementation of future technologies. This includes helping innovators to develop winter-ready solutions for a wide array of sectors and global markets at our state-of-the-art facility,” says Shorey.Railway Crossing at Area X.O site

So, how can you get started? The organization has created a simple and seamless application process to help innovators and companies access Area X.O capabilities, services and expertise quickly and effectively with proper support:

Divyanshu Kamboj, Project Manager of CAV Programs at Area X.O, wants innovators to bring on their toughest R&D, test and validation challenges. He says the Ottawa climate and four-season testing opportunities creates a sense of confidence for Area X.O and its clients.

“I didn’t know freezing rain existed before I moved to Ottawa,” he says with a laugh. “And if an autonomous solution works at Area X.O, I am confident it will work anywhere in the world.”

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