Meet Rudy, the high-wire robot that could be N.L.’s next big invention

“This is where I really hope it doesn’t break.”

Jesse McCaw is about to send his baby out into the world, and up onto its first real wire.

McCaw is standing on a ladder, at the base of a guy-wire that supports a very tall communications tower. To the wire, he attaches a yellow plastic case, stuffed with electronics. That case is his invention: Rudy, the guy-wire robot.

Rudy can quickly scale a guy-wire and test it for damage, while the operator stays safely on the ground. (Zach Goudie, CBC)

McCaw descends the ladder, grabs a remote control, and with the touch of a button, Rudy starts scaling the wire. After just a few seconds, the robot is high above McCaw’s head. 

“It’s very exciting.” he says. “This is the culmination of all our work.”

Rudy the robot

Like many inventors, McCaw began with a problem. He worked with an engineering firm that used a sensor to inspect tower guy-wires.

“They had to use pulleys and ropes and climbers, and I looked at and said I think we could do this better, and I think there could be some sort of robotic solution out there,” he said.

“So we came up with the idea of Rudy, and today’s the day we’re puttin ‘er up a tower.”

For Rudy’s first field test, Bell Aliant agreed to give the Averro team access to a real telecommunications tower. (Zach Goudie, CBC)

Two years ago, McCaw founded Averro Robotics and Technology. The company built a prototype, and a test rig in McCaw’s in-laws’ garage. But they needed to test Rudy in the real world, so Bell Aliant agreed to give McCaw and his team access to a real communications tower.

Who wants to buy a Rudy?

Guy-wires are critical infrastructure for all sorts of tall things; communications towers, ski lifts, flare stacks at industrial sites.

Rudy tests the wires for breaks, corrosion and other damage. The robot consists of a drive system for climbing, a data recorder, and a magnetic rope-testing device, called an MRT.

It’s a job normally done by a team of technicians, but it’s time-consuming, costly, and a little dangerous.

Don’t look down! This is Rudy’s point-of-view as the robot climbs a very tall guy-wire. (Zach Goudie, CBC)

“Either you’re doing a visual inspection, where you have to either get cameras, a drone, or take the wire down. Or you’re doing what’s called rope-access inspection,” says Greg Currie, Averro’s business development lead.

“You would get a rope access team in, you would winch yourself up to the top, and through a pulley system, you would pull the MRT head up. And this can take long periods of time, and if you’re working on things like flare stacks or anywhere where there’s human danger, you have to shut the whole system down.”

Instead, Rudy the robot climbs the guy-wire and performs the test in a fraction of the time, controlled by a single operator, safely on the ground.

It’s a high-wire act that inspired the robot’s name.

Inspired by ‘Papa Rudy’

Rudolph Omankowsky was a circus circus performer and pioneer of tightrope walking.

“Papa Rudy” trained Philippe Petit, who performed the most famous tight-rope walk in history, between New York’s twin towers in 1974.

Rudy the robot gets its name from Rudolph (Papa Rudy) Omankowsky, a circus performer and pioneers of tightrope walking. Papa Rudy trained Philippe Petit, who famously walked a wire between New York’s twin towers. (Alan Welner/The Associated Press)

Rudy the robot looks more like a sentient suitcase than the graceful Petit, but just like its namesake, it gets the job done and makes it down off the wire in one piece.

Averro Robotics and Technology is the latest local company to find a home at Memorial University’s Genesis Centre, a hub for inventors and entrepreneurs to grow their ideas. Products developed there include the Waterlily, a portable electric turbine, and the Ski-Zee, a propulsion system that turns cross-country skiing into a motorized sport.

Other inventions developed at MUN’s Genesis Centre include the Waterlily, a portable electric turbine, and the Ski-Zee, a motorized accessory for cross-country skiing. (CBC)

With their field test complete, Averro is ready to start marketing Rudy to potential buyers. With a price tag of more than $20,000, you likely won’t be getting one for your birthday. But with guy-wires propping up a wide range of industries, Currie hopes Rudy could be the Genesis Centre’s next big thing.

“It’s been awesome. Everyone at the team are all innovators. It’s been great to link up with Jesse. Yongbin (Geng) is here too, he’s one of our robotics team members.” he said. “We’re all young and hungry, and we’re just looking to innovate and solve problems out in the world.”

Averro Robotics and Technology is a young tech startup in St. John’s. From left, Yongbin Geng, Jesse McCaw and Greg Currie. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

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