Ocean depths have been called the final frontiers on Earth. The extreme cold, pressure and darkness hampers deep-sea exploration.
Built to withstand those harsh conditions, marine robots, commonly called autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), dive kilometres down to measure sound, temperature, magnetism, and other physical and chemical properties. However, most AUVs sport metal bodies, which introduce competing electromagnetic noise of their own.
This noise interferes with, and often masks, the magnetic data collected from the ocean floor. To reduce AUV-generated interference, a process developed for submarines can help; however, it’s complex and costly. Other workarounds met limited success, from outfitting AUVs with plastic bodies for shallower-water operations to towing sensors far behind metal AUVs while taking care not to snag the tether cable.
So, technical consultants at Vancouver-based Ocean Floor Geophysics (OFG) get called in to acquire and decipher magnetic data, especially by organizations seeking reliable data to detect the presence of sea-floor mineral deposits.
OFG geophysicists and engineers designed a tool—a self-compensating magnetometer system—to support their work internally, and realized that other applications could benefit from it.
However, the team was too busy with consulting work to pursue opportunities, until NRC’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) came knocking.
Making sense of deep-sea data
"A third-party research analysis report intrigued me when it rated OFG well," said Industrial Technology Advisor (ITA) Dr. Walter Cicha. In mid-2015, Cicha took the initiative to contact the company’s Chief Executive Officer, Matthew Kowalczyk, to learn more about OFG.
Kowalczyk told Cicha that OFG considered converting its internal system into a standalone product, a magnetometer sensor embedded with OFG’s marine geophysics "smarts" to calibrate and compensate for electromagnetic noise. Best of all, it could address broader applications like identifying unexploded mines, subsea pipeline inspection, and maritime archaeological finds.
Cicha understood the technology’s potential. He encouraged Kowalczyk to apply for IRAP support and brought in ITA colleague Mary MacFarlane with her extensive network in marine technology, who helped link OFG to potential partners.
"As a small company with limited resources, IRAP support was the kick-start we needed," said Kowalczyk. "It reduced the technical risk and permitted our small company to commit to a technology project without compromising our existing consulting services."
"IRAP was unbelievably effective in letting us develop the technology, pursue export markets and grow our team."
With that support, Kowalczyk hired a geophysicist to manage the project, complement existing OFG staff working on the algorithm and application knowledge, and coordinate with Canadian subcontractors Cellula Robotics.
Clients can place the system inside AUVs or strap it outside, and even move it from one AUV to another. That flexibility and OFG’s algorithm, which Cicha calls "the magic sauce," lets academics, government and industry run the OFG system.
Within a year, OFG exceeded its project goals by not only manufacturing the prototype, but closing client deals.
"Right away at project completion, we sold six of our sensor systems, based on results from the IRAP project. And sales continue." says Kowalczyk.
OFG’s team developed the system fast enough to meet a window of opportunity with international client Kongsberg Maritime, one of world’s largest AUV manufacturers. OFG also has domestic clients like Canadian manufacturer International Submarine Engineering (ISE Ltd.), which is bundling OFG’s system in an AUV for geological exploration and understanding of the Antarctic.
Other sectors want OFG’s system too, with interest especially high in the oil and gas infrastructure sector. An unexpected, indirect benefit of succeeding in producing a mission-specific system is the reputation boost; companies from varied sectors are taking notice and reaching out for OFG’s expertise and services.
"IRAP was unbelievably effective in letting us develop the technology, pursue export markets and grow our team," says Kowalczyk. He values IRAP’s role to the point that he has applied again for funding, this time for an IRAP-EUREKA project aligned with his company’s international activities. OFG has also been identified as a "high-impact firm" qualified for the Accelerated Growth Service, an initiative involving various federal departments, crown corporations, regional economic development agencies, and IRAP.
Thanks to NRC’s IRAP, Kowalczyk has expanded OFG’s business beyond consulting by mining the depths of Canadian marine technology.