Ottawa robotics firm Provectus acquired by German tech group Rheinmetall

Provectus
A rover delivered for Canadian military testing in 2017 through a partnership between Ontario Drive Group and Provectus Robotics Solutions. Photo via Provectus

When the Ottawa company that Paul Rocco worked for went bankrupt in early 2010, he and a couple of colleagues decided to pick up some robotics work for one of the firm’s old customers.

“We thought, hey, what else have we got to lose? Maybe we can make it through the summer,” Rocco recalls.

Now, the middle of its 10th summer in operation, Provectus Robotics Solutions has been acquired by a German company with aims to scale its autonomous rover piloting systems to the global defence market.

“It worked out a little bit better than we thought it would,” Rocco says with a laugh.

The Ottawa company announced earlier this week it has been acquired by Düsseldorf-based Rheinmetall Group, a global tech firm focused on the mobility and security markets.

Those two sectors are a perfect intersection for Provectus, which develops software that remotely and autonomously controls all-terrain rovers. Its tech is deployed at three airports in Canada to safely dispose of suspicious baggage, and the RCMP uses its software to disrupt improvised explosive devices. The firm also counts the United States Army and other European militaries among its clientele.

After successfully executing projects with its initial customer, Provectus landed a gig designing control systems for the Canadian Space Agency alongside another local firm, Neptec Design Group, which was acquired last year by MDA. Through that project, Provectus’s tech went into the command and control systems for early prototypes of a lunar rover.

The intellectual property and connections developed through the CSA contract allowed the firm to continue selling its software, which brought it into the path of Rheinmetall Canada. A strong early relationship eventually led the companies to compete in and win a land robotics competition together in Europe – Rocco says that was the turning point when Rheinmetall’s parent company decided the Canadian outpost should become its robotics centre of excellence, which led to discussions about “formalizing the relationship” between Provectus and the global firm.

The fully-bootstrapped firm has a lot to gain from joining forces with Rheinmetall, Rocco says. While Provectus was able to make significant strides over its decade as an independent business, the six-person venture never had the name recognition of a global company, which created a barrier when it came to landing major military deals.

Rocco recalls the questions: “Who's this little company, Provectus Robotics from Ottawa? And how are they going to support any real programs with a foreign military entity?

“Well, that's what Rheinmetall does.”

Additionally, having the resources of a parent company behind it allows Provectus to focus on R&D. Previously, it was either a sales push or a development push – now, the company can sustain both.

There are a variety of capabilities, aimed particularly at the defence market, that Rocco is excited to build out with Rheinmetall’s backing. Primarily, that means scaling its control systems to bigger, faster vehicles in order to keep up with the “operational tempo” of modern militaries.

In contrast to some of the autonomous vehicle development happening elsewhere in Ottawa, the conditions Provectus is designing for are anything but predictable, Rocco says. Military rovers need to be able to go off-road, day or night, through any kind of weather imagined at speeds up to 80 kilometres per hour.

To aid in its R&D, Provectus is making use of Ottawa’s new L5 test facilities for autonomous vehicle tech – though it’s already familiar terrain for the firm. Rocco calls Provectus the “anchor tenant” of the L5 facilities, as the company was already located on the site before Invest Ottawa and its partners set the area up as an official testbed for connected cars. The difference now, he says, is the chance to lean on the expertise of new players in its own backyard.

Rocco, who is staying on as managing director of the firm, says the company is looking to take up more space at its existing facility as it looks to grow and take on bigger projects under its new ownership.

“Our plan is to grow the company: to have a bigger footprint here in Ottawa and extend our reach throughout the world,” he says.

In other words, he’s expecting Provectus to be around for the rest of the summer – and the summer after that.