It was a decade ago in the middle of Lake Huron that Sam Macdonald first got the idea.
Ms. Macdonald and her late-night boating companions had accidentally dropped a flashlight in the water. “We started talking: ‘Why is there no robot with an arm on it to go and get the flashlight?’” she recalls.
It’s a story Ms. Macdonald has told many times in the eight years since she co-founded Deep Trekker Inc., a company based in Kitchener, Ont., that makes underwater robots and drones.
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Ms. Macdonald, who has a background in sales and marketing, founded Deep Trekker with Jeff Lotz, an engineer who had dabbled in the field in college, and Shawn Pette, who is no longer involved in the company’s operations. The company presently employs 39 people and manufactures in Ontario.
Today, Deep Trekker’s remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) do more than search for lost flashlights. These machines are portable and have high-definition cameras, sensors and lights. They run entirely on batteries, unlike older generations of ROVs that use gas generators carried by boats. These qualities have made the company’s robots and drones highly attractive to a number of industries.
The company has many aquaculture clients, who use the ROVs to inspect underwater nets. Energy companies and municipalities use the ROVs to survey power plants, while in the shipping industry, the technology is used to inspect boats for damage and invasive species. Police and military also use the machines to check for underwater explosives, contraband or missing people.
Deep Trekker’s ROVs are also used for research and exploration. This summer, the company is lending a sonar-outfitted ROV to a pair of University of Calgary postdocs who are setting out for Baffin Island with hopes of finding the Nova Zembla, an Arctic whaling wreck that has been missing since 1902. Ms. Macdonald says she’s excited about participating in the search. “Shipwreck hunting is a long and arduous business from what I understand, but you never know what they might find.”
Ms. Macdonald says the price, size and portability of Deep Trekker’s ROVs make them accessible to a great variety of clients, and that the company has sold units to thousands of customers. Deep Trekker’s machines range in price from US$3,900 to half a million, depending on add-on sensors and tools.
The market for unmanned underwater vehicles is growing rapidly, according to Rian Whitton, research analyst with technology advisory firm ABI Research. He says the global market will be worth US$4.6-billion in 2020 – double its value in 2015.
Mr. Whitton says there is intense competition in the sector. One competitor is Newfoundland-based Kraken Robotics, which has a machine that can plunder depths of 6,000 metres. (Deep Trekker’s DTX2 has a depth rating of 305 metres.) Some oil rigs drill down to depths of more than 3,000 metres, Mr. Whitton says.
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“They’re at risk of being outgunned by the large number of competitors who specialize in no more than a few use cases,” he says. For energy and military customers, a lower price point is not as important as functionality and durability when selecting an underwater robot.
“They do, however, have an advantage, as virtually no autonomous underwater vehicle can operate gripper systems, while their ROVs do,” Mr. Whitton says, referring to Deep Trekker’s grabber arm feature, which can pick up objects and move them.
Even with stiff competition, Ms. Macdonald believes her company will still be able to carve out a healthy piece of the market by catering to price-sensitive customers and those operating in small spaces who want compact, portable machines.
Part of her pride in Deep Trekker comes from the fact that the machines are made in Ontario. She witnessed first-hand how automation affected automakers in the province.
“We’ve heard that manufacturing in Ontario is not a thing any more, and I don’t believe that to be true,” she says. “We’re proving the naysayers wrong and building a strong Canadian company.”