A former startup that graduated from Waterloo’s tech ecosystem is coming home for a project that could be the template for autonomous vehicle mapping systems in Ontario.

Ecopia.AI is partnering with Communitech, the University of Waterloo’s Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research (aka WatCAR) and Waterloo Region Economic Development Corporation (aka Waterloo EDC). They are the key partners in the area’s Regional Technology Development Site, which focuses on high definition HD mapping and localization for Ontario’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network (AVIN).

Ecopia co-founder and President Jon Lipinski says Waterloo Region will be the test bed from which his company will scale out its HD vector maps for autonomous vehicles.

Ecopia, founded in 2013 and based on a core technology developed by UW PhD student and Ecopia CEO Yuanming Shu, spent three years in the Accelerator Centre, honing its approach to high definition maps, before moving to Toronto.

In 2016, Ecopia mapped all 16 million buildings in Australia in partnership with

Maxar Technologies (formerly DigitalGlobe) satellite imagery. In 2018, Ecopia and Maxar further produced the first HD vector map of each of the 169 million buildings in the United States. As well, thanks in part to a grant from Sustainable Development Technology Canada, Ecopia will next map sub-Saharan Africa — 342 million buildings and 3.8 million kilometres of roads. 

And this year, Ecopia has begun work on HD vector maps for the world of autonomous vehicles.

Some of Ecopia’s 30-member team have already imaged every road in Waterloo Region. Now the software engineers will translate those images into maps that AI-enabled cars can read.

The HD vector map will be like no other, says Lipinski, because while a “human has the capability to perceive the world around them, autonomous vehicles need assistance with that. An autonomous vehicle won’t be able to use regular, consumer-grade maps, for instance. They need a much higher level of detail: knowing where every curb is, where every stop sign is, every turning mark on the pavement.”

Lipinski says the Waterloo example is intended to be “a success story to scale out to much larger areas . . . our long-term goal is to create worldwide HD vector maps, so we’re really excited about figuring out the use case and scaling from here.”

While the system can be sold to autonomous vehicle manufacturers to embed in their vehicles, the AVIN consortium will make the platform available to small- and medium-sized businesses which can build applications on top of the maps and create a community of support. 

Lipinski credits Kevin Tuer, Communitech’s Vice-President, Data and Advanced Technologies, and his team at Communitech, for making the project possible. “What they have been doing is extremely valuable for us. To create this ecosystem, you have to have a lot of different players: they are bringing together those players.” 

As well as bringing those players together and in addition to supporting Ecopia, Communitech is co-ordinating, through the Waterloo AVIN Ventures Program, the financial support and mentorship for qualified companies focused on connected transportation and mapping products, services and systems. The first eight companies accepted into the Ventures program were announced in October. The next call for AVIN Ventures project proposals will be the spring of 2020.

Tuer says that crowd-sourced data from the greater business community will enrich Ecopia’s HD maps: “The platform is intended to be a community asset on which others can build net new value or data into it to increase the interest for others to use it.”

Tuer says some companies are exploring HD mapping, but their work is proprietary: “The key to this is that these HD maps are being built on the premise of open innovation, thereby allowing the community to participate as contributors and data users. I can envision this platform being the home of both proprietary data and open data for the purpose of creating value in not only the autonomous vehicle space, but the smart city realm as a whole.”

Lipinski is keenly aware of the business opportunities in the HD map project: “The world is always changing and customers need up-to-date maps, so we’re always updating our maps based on these needs.”

Ecopia’s expertise in HD mapping has paid dividends. The company was recently named by Deloitte Canada as No. 5 of the Fast 50 — fastest growing tech companies in Canada — and No. 17 on the Fast 500 for all of North America, with a 6,186 per cent growth rate from 2015 to 2018. Lipinski notes that of the Fast 50, Ecopia is the only company that did not have to raise venture capital: “We have been able to organically grow primarily through customer demand, and I’m really proud of that fact.”

Mapping for autonomous vehicles, says Lipinski, “is a huge opportunity. We’re very excited about the future of (HD AV) mapping. It’s really going to change the way we interact with the physical world.”

Learn more about Waterloo's Open HD Map Initiative

Learn more about Ecopia