Building robots with a humanitarian mission
Meet the Waterloo alumnus named on the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list
Most children take their first steps with a carefree excitement to explore the world around them. But for Cambodian children, potential danger lies hidden beneath every eager step. They’ve inherited a landscape cursed with landmines from years of deadly conflict.
Richard Yim grew up in Cambodia and recalls dinner table conversations where his family warned him of the explosive devices concealed underground. More than 70 countries are impacted by landmines and Cambodia has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the most heavily land-mined countries in the world. According to the Cambodian Red Cross, half of landmine victims in Cambodia are children.
“When I was eight years old, I learned that my aunt had passed away because she stepped on a landmine,” explains Yim. “After learning that, it has become my personal mission to develop a solution and build a product that can defuse landmines safely and effectively.”
Yim was determined to become an engineer and, in 2011, he was accepted into the University of Waterloo’s co-operative education Mechanical Engineering program. When Yim moved to Canada, he was struck by the freedom and support he received to walk off the beaten path.
After an inspiring lecture, Yim was encouraged to enrol into GreenHouse at St. Paul’s University College, a social impact incubator, to turn his mission into a purpose-driven business.
Yim co-founded Landmine Boys, a startup born out of a fourth-year mechanical engineering Capstone Design project. It promotes a safer alternative for neutralizing landmines than the current method of controlled explosion. Yim’s first robot was designed to defuse landmines without detonation or human interaction. The company, now called Demine Robotics, develops semi-autonomous machines that can locate, dig and remove a landmine while keeping humans at a safe distance.
Over the past several years, Yim has been a member of several support programs that make up Waterloo’s vibrant innovation ecosystem. This includes GreenHouse, Velocity Garage, the Accelerator Centre, the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement and the Conrad School of Entrepreneurship and Business where he completed his Master of Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology degree.
Yim won many pitch competitions and awards along the way, including $5,000 from the GreenHouse Social Impact Fund, $10,000 at Waterloo’s Norman Esch Capstone Design Awards, $25,000 at Canada’s Business Model Competition and $25,000 at Waterloo’s Velocity Fund Finals. However, one of Yim’s proudest accomplishments was his return to Cambodia in 2016 where he successfully tested his mine-defusing technology.
Demine Robotics now operates out of two offices; one on Waterloo’s campus and one in Cambodia. Both locations hold unique advantages. In Cambodia, Yim continues testing his technology and leverages the landmine knowledge and expertise in his home country.
In Waterloo, Demine Robotics works out of the Centre for Peace Advancement at Conrad Grebel University College. The Centre’s incubator offers training and support for new peace initiatives.
“We help startups to think and work politically,” says Paul Heidebrecht, director of the Centre for Peace Advancement. The landscape of disarmament efforts can be difficult to navigate. Governments may fund demining efforts, but it is often non-governmental organizations (NGOs) executing the work. Heidebrecht explains that the Centre helps startups build a big picture strategy to get their peace technology in front of the right players.
Yim notes that for his company to succeed, “it’s not just about building the right technology, but it’s about knowing the right people, understanding the social problem and understanding the organizational pain-points that we need to solve.”
Yim is getting to know the right people. He regularly meets with government officials and NGOs, and in May 2018, he showcased his technology at the Cambodian National Landmine Conference for the Prime Minister of Cambodia.
2018 was a big year for Yim, but success does not come without some setbacks. In May, an exercise on a test landmine did not go according to plan. The semi-autonomous excavator failed to dig-up the active landmine. Yim was disappointed, but not defeated. He is now testing his fourth ideation of the robot and recent testing in November was successful.
Advancing technology alongside political will has been a challenging journey, but Yim is not giving up. Remembering why he co-founded Demine Robotics strengthens his determination.
“After war, when peace comes and bullets stop flying, landmines are still in the ground,” says Yim. “Children shouldn't be afraid to step-off the beaten path. They should be able to walk to school and hike and explore their world without fear.”
By combining social impact with emerging technologies, Yim can see a future where children do not fear walking beyond the beaten path.
“We believe that in the future, our machines will be the factor that removes landmines from the ground, once and for all.”