For most people the saying, "to be in deep water," is about finding oneself in a dangerous or difficult situation. But for Kitchener, Ontario‑based company, Deep Trekker, it's all in a day's work.
Since 2010, Deep Trekker's durable, innovative, and portable, submersible and underwater remotely operated vehicles—also known as ROVs—have helped solve a wide range of environmental and industrial challenges across multiple sectors including military, search and rescue, energy, shipping, and ocean science.
The company's technology was used for specialty underwater discovery and exploration of ships including the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbour, the HMS Erebus (dubbed the "Franklin Expedition") in the Canadian Arctic, and the Nova Zembla whaling ship off Baffin Island. Even Richard Branson is familiar with Deep Trekker: in 2018, the company joined the founder of Virgin Group to explore one of the world's largest underwater sinkholes: the Great Blue Hole off the coast of Belize.
For more than 7 years, the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP) has been part of Deep Trekker's growth and evolution into a true Canadian business success.
A budding relationship
Deep Trekker first reached out to NRC IRAP in 2013 for help developing a newer and fuller‑feature version of its then‑flagship product, the DTG2.
The company noticed an increase in industry need and customer demand for ROVs with expanded features, capable of operating at greater depths, in higher currents and with increased payload capacity.
Having previously worked in factory automation robotics, Deep Trekker founder and president, Sam Macdonald, had already heard about NRC IRAP.
"We knew that developing the 'bigger brother' to our product would be a pretty big project. To accelerate the development of this new product, I looked to see if NRC IRAP was still around—and lo and behold, it was," she says.
The company first met with Yves Richard, an Industrial Technology Advisor (ITA) with NRC IRAP, to explore their plans for new product development. With Yves' guidance and funding from NRC IRAP, Deep Trekker was able to develop and release the DTX2 Next Generation Remotely Operated Vehicle in 2014, which has since become one of its mainstay products.
The following year, NRC IRAP also provided support to help Deep Trekker redesign its ROV handheld controller. At the time, the ROV could only be controlled from above the water from a boat or dock. A request from the British Royal Navy challenged the company to develop a more rugged controller that could go underwater with the entire system and be operated by a diver. Not long after this successful project, the company began seeing other opportunities for defence and commercial diving applications.
More recently, NRC IRAP supported Deep Trekker in building upon its "bridge platform"—the communication platform between the controller and the robot—and bringing the product line to the leading edge of technology in the market.
"We incorporated our company in 2010 and platforms had changed a lot since then, so with NRC IRAP's help, we were able to hire some new graduates to join our R&D team and help completely transform and modernize our communication platform," says Sam. The graduates brought on during these projects provided a significant contribution to the overall growth of the company.
According to Sam, Deep Trekker's robots are so simple that anyone can use them: simply put them in the water and they act as an underwater drone. "Inevitably, though, when you make something that appears simple, customers are going to want more," she says. "They began asking for sonar systems to get images in low‑visibility environments. And because GPS doesn't work well underwater, we were asked to integrate USBL (ultra‑short baseline), which is an underwater positioning system."
Through 2019, the company worked on integrating advanced sensors and increasing the autonomy of its technology. For example, Deep Trekker's new intelligence platform now includes a variety of sensors to make the robot know when to stop if someone lets go of the controller.
"The company is very innovative. Every time I tour their manufacturing and lab space, there is always something new going on," says David Heit, the NRC IRAP Industrial Technology Advisor who has been working with the firm since 2017. "It may be a new robot or a new attachment like a pressure washer, but ultimately, it's about creating a better user experience and enabling better video and image capture and resolution, better reporting of data, and better autonomy.
Advisory services elevate company success
In addition to funding from NRC IRAP, Deep Trekker has benefited greatly from the expertise and guidance that is the cornerstone of the program.
"Our ITA David has a wealth of knowledge and experience in multiple industries, so he's been able to give us guidance in terms of what would resonate best with different markets," says Sam. "He's also really well connected so he's introduced us to Export Development Canada, Canada's Trade Commissioner Service, and folks who could be potential customers."
On David's advice, the company is considering how to use underwater science data generated from its robots to create a new revenue stream for the company. "It's not set in stone, but effectively we are moving forward making robots more intelligent and more autonomous, while also looking at how to make that data available and useful in a variety of different ways to customers," Sam adds.
According to David, the advisory services provided by NRC IRAP are just as valuable as funding.
"Most businesses hear about and contact NRC IRAP primarily for our funding, but once we set up a relationship with them, they realize our ITAs have decades of experience working with and in multiple industries and even with multinationals," he says. "We understand trends and innovation, can identify new and growing markets, and even make recommendations for additional revenue opportunities."
Identifying new markets
As Deep Trekker has evolved, so too have the demands of their customers.
"They're always finding new applications for their technology, which has shown us that Deep Trekker is in a high‑growth market. Over time they have been able to take on a much more diverse customer base," says David.
One of those new customer bases is in Chile, where the company recently opened a new branch.
With oceans being depleted of wild fish stock, Chile has emerged as a major global player in fish farming. Technology from Deep Trekker will be used for surveillance, to ensure that seals and other marine life are not damaging nets, getting caught or taking the fish.
"We opened in Chile to look after a strong aquaculture market, as salmon farmers are adopting a lot of technologies for environmental sustainability," says Sam. "Having an office there makes us close to those customers and to see what technologies will be needed next in that industry."
A true global force
When Deep Trekker started working with NRC IRAP in 2013, it was already a success. But today, the company is a true global force to be reckoned with.
"When we started our first project with NRC IRAP, we were in 5 or 6 different countries with about 10 employees," says Sam. "Today, we're in more than 90 countries, have products being used across 9 different industries, and have 68 people working for us."
Just in the last year, the company has grown about 40% and is up to $14 million in annual sales.
"Whenever we have had plans to make advancements in our technology, NRC IRAP has not only allowed us to accelerate those advancements but also stay ahead of the competition and at the leading edge of the market. We really wouldn't be as far ahead of the game without the assistance of the program."