What do you do if you want to see Ontario’s substantial array of shipwrecks but aren’t a scuba diver? For most people, the answer is to console yourself by perusing books with lots of glossy photographs. Entrepreneur Sam Macdonald had a different idea.
“I love boating in the Great Lakes, and I used to read about all the shipwrecks," she told TVO.org by phone from Kitchener. "In about 2009 I started to think about having an underwater remote-controlled submarine. I didn’t even know they were called ROVs at the time.”
ROV stands for remotely operated vehicle and it is, in simple terms, an underwater drone. An operator can stand on a boat bobbing on the surface with a monitor and remote control while exploring the murky depths below. The catch is that operating underwater is harder than it looks, and when Macdonald was in the market for an ROV to allow her to do just that, the price tag ran into the tens of thousands.
A friend introduced her to engineer Jeff Lotz, who had built an ROV in university. Together, they founded Deep Trekker in 2009. The company now employs 26 people building and selling ROVs in Kitchener, with Macdonald as president.
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Lotz’s innovation in ROV design addressed a basic problem of moving underwater: easily going up and down. Submarines do it by filling and emptying ballast tanks, and ROVs move through the water with powerful thrusters for moving horizontally and separate, usually weaker, thrusters for moving vertically. But those thrusters add cost and complexity to vehicle design. Deep Trekker’s ROVs work, instead, by changing the drone's pitch, so its nose points either up or down. This allows one set of thrusters to do the work of pushing through the water both horizontally and vertically.
The simpler design has allowed Deep Trekker to sell an ROV that starts at less than $4,000 where traditional systems run at least 10 times as much.
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They aren't just toys for hobbyists: they've been used to explore a sunken battleship in Pearl Harbor, and in the Canadian Arctic to help find the ships of the Franklin expedition. Fisheries are also turning out to be eager customers. Gord Cole, owner of Aqua Cage Fisheries in Parry Sound, has used underwater drones in his business for years.
“Before ROVs, we had to use divers to inspect our nets and assess the condition of the fish. Diving presents some problems,” he explains, including expenses and potential safety risks. “An ROV allows us to do all the work in the water without using divers. We haven’t used a diver in 15 years.” Cole used a different brand of ROV before buying a Deep Trekker model, but was glad to switch to an Ontario-based company, which makes the unavoidable service calls much easier.
But Deep Trekker didn’t start off selling to Ontario-based fish farms. Their first sales call came from Norway, where salmon farming is an industry with global reach. (Norway produces 1.3 million tonnes of salmon annually, compared to Canada’s 120,000. Ontario farms about 4,500 tonnes of fish, almost entirely rainbow trout.) Like more than one Canadian company, they’ve found it easier to sell their innovation abroad than at home.
“Within Canada’s it’s a smaller market than in Chile and Norway,” Macdonald says. “We think [the Ontario market] is going to be important long-term, but it made more sense for us to go to the largest markets first and get traction there. Canada," she adds, "tends to be a little more conservative and a little more cautious in their spending."
Deep Trekker has found success in other realms as well, selling units to police forces for their search-and-recovery teams, as well as to municipalities for something important but far more banal: inspecting sewer systems.
Here again, the company’s location in Ontario may prove a selling point. The Ontario Provincial Police doesn’t use Deep Trekker ROVs, but Staff Sgt. Kevin Gorman told TVO.org that there’s a real advantage to working with Ontario firms, provided they can do so while respecting provincial rules around fair procurement.
“The biggest issue for us is service and shipping. Getting the level of service we need with the U.S.-Canada border can be a real stumbling block," Gorman says. "Some equipment we buy a spare of just to deal with that, because it can take months to get things back.”
The company’s success in a province where manufacturing hasn’t had an easy time in the last decade is notable, but is no guarantee of future results. Much like the explosion of consumer-grade aerial drones in recent years, Macdonald knows that Deep Trekker is going to face more intense competition from companies offering even cheaper products.
That’s likely to be good news for fish farmers like Cole, who will either see lower prices and, more importantly for him, greater variety in what ROVs can do.
“There’s little new things like attaching a GoPro camera, and you can already do net repairs," he says. "I think over time you’ll see an evolution to higher-def cameras, off-the-shelf monitors, more environmental probes.”
If he's right, Ontario's fish may have more robot companions swimming their way soon.