By Annie Bergeron-Oliver and Alexandra Mae Jones
Hidden in plain sight on an old government farm near downtown Ottawa is a 1,800-acre playground for tech entrepreneurs: a smart city called Area X.O.
While the name may evoke thoughts of alien investigations, Area X.O is all about business and innovation. Powered by its own super speed 5G wireless network with live input from traffic and aviation partners, this state-of-the-art smart city is bringing companies from around the world together to test technology that could revolutionize communities.
“This site gives us the opportunity to try new things, see what people want, test it out, and if it validates, we move forward,” Michael Tremblay, CEO of Invest Ottawa, told CTV News.
At the private compound, companies can develop and test out autonomous vehicles, drones, smart agriculture and even projects related to defence and security, all in a real-world setting. There are roadways, traffic lights and even a railway crossing.
According to their website, part of Area X.O’s vehicle testing facilities include the ability to simulate all four seasons, putting vehicles through temperatures ranging from -39 degrees Celsius to 39 degrees Celsius.
This week, the federal government announced it would be putting $7 million in funding towards Area X.O so that smaller businesses that normally can’t afford to use expensive technology in their development or testing of products can have an opportunity to work with those tools at Area X.O.
One of the projects tested at the facility is a mobile command unit which uses drones to locate missing people, and then sends an autonomous emergency vehicle automatically to their location.
Shawn Sparling, vice president of Enterprise and Public Sector at Nokia Canada, told CTV News that the 5G network allows “instantaneous communication from all the devices in the area,” making it a prime location to test tech that relies on wireless communication, such as this innovation in search and rescue.
Nokia is one of the founding partners of Area X.O.
“Nokia brings the communications piece, but we need small, medium, large companies to work with and bring solutions around the 4G, 5G networks, so we can address manufacturing search and rescue with their applications,” Sparling said. “This environment here allows us to work with them closely and do a lot of testing.”
From sensors that stop driverless cars when someone is in the crosswalk, to self-driving tractors, all these creations aim to make life safer and easier in a more connected world.
GPS Ontario, a company that works on implementing technological innovations into agriculture, is testing tractors that can function autonomously and more efficiently at Area X.O.
“One of the biggest issues we have in agriculture right now is actually getting skilled workforce,” he told CTV News. “Having the ability to have a tractor that knows where it needs to go and what it needs to be doing at the same time is going to give us that […] [ability to] put almost anybody in the tractor cab now and run the same accuracy as if the farm owner or farmer himself was in the tractor.”
He said that one of the big advantages of Area X.O is the telecommunications and tools already in place that allow them to do more testing than is possible on a regular farm.
These tractors will still have a driver in them for oversight, but less pressure is on the driver to do everything.
“The driver in the tractor literally has to say: ‘Yes, I would like you to turn,’ and the system’s preprogrammed, ready to go, to where it needs to be driving,” Wallace said.
They’re working on being able to send commands to an autonomous tractor that would allow it to make choices between types of fertilizer or split planter varieties, and are hoping that the efficiencies this technology could introduce might even make farming more environmentally friendly and more cost-effective for farmers.
With the government’s promised funding for Area X.O, 200 jobs will be created, adding to the 230 people who already work at the facility, helping to provide a glimpse into future uses of technology in Canada.