SAM the robot could inspect Toronto highrises

Entrepreneur Filip Sobotka says the solution to Toronto's falling glass problems could be a robot named SAM.

Entrepreneur says invention would speed up building inspections

SAM the robot could help with Toronto's falling glass problems, Steven D'Souza reports. 2:02

Entrepreneur Filip Sobotka says the solution to Toronto's falling glass problems could be a robot named SAM.

The device, which was developed by his family, could speed up the way building inspections are done, and give engineers more information to determine the health of a building, he says.

The invention comes at a time when Toronto has been site of a number of incidents involving highrise glass crashing onto the streets below.

"The amount of highrises that are going up in this city and the issues that keep coming up … it keeps going so we think this is very important, before someone gets injured," Sobotka told CBC News. 

Right now, most building inspections are done by engineers using a swing stage or bosun's chair, inspecting a few selected spots to determine the overall health of the building. Sobotka says SAM can scan the entire exterior of the building in a lot less time and for a fraction of the cost.   

Inspectors "pick and choose where they want to go on the building, what they note down, what to take pictures of," he said.

"Sam is pretty unbiased — it's automated, it captures everything, and then you go and inspect it and you can have multiple people look at it," Sobotka said.

The setup involves an SLR camera attached to a motorized platform that travels up and down two metal cables. Rigging on the roof and the ground keep SAM steady, allowing it to take photos of the exterior of a building. 

Filip Sobotka says his robotic building inspector could be a major money-saver. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

The robot is controlled via a WiFi connection to an iPad.

The photos taken can show engineers everything from window seals to poor caulking to cracks in cement or brick. He says SAM could detect cracks in balcony glass or other deficiencies that could lead to problems later on.  

"We scan everything. When a person's up there they can make errors, they can miss something; they only have one shot unless they go up again to view it," Sobotka said.

$200K startup  

SAM was developed by Sobotka, his brother Thomas and father Jozef.

The elder Sobotka, a tradesman, came up with the idea six years ago when he saw building inspections that were incomplete and problems missed. They developed the prototype over the last two years, sinking $200,000 of their own money into the nascent company. 

Recently they pitched the idea to the CBC Television program Dragon's Den. They're waiting to hear if they make the cut in the fall.

SAM the robot's view of a Toronto highrise. (SAM)

Sobotka said the industry has been slow to take to the idea because there is no other product to compare it to, but says the need is there.

But whether SAM could detect the problems that have led to falling balcony glass it up for debate.

Doug Perovic at the University of Toronto's engineering department says the problem is often traced to microcopic inclusions or impurities in the glass that went undetected during the manufacturing process. He says it would be hard to detect that with just a camera. 

"The robotic camera can help find some problems so it's certainly a help but it's not going to solve this main problem that we've seen responsibile for the … large majority of the glass fractures we've seen in Toronto going back to last summer," Perovic says.

Sobotka said this is just the first prototype of SAM and future upgrades will include more sophisticated diagnostic equipment. For now he stresses that while falling glass may garner the most headlines, there are problems SAM can detect that could save condo boards a lot of money in repairs.

"It's a lot of money, thousands, hundreds of thousands, depending on what the problem is. If you attack the problem early enough, you can save boatloads," he said.