What started as a fun project for two techies on Vancouver Island more than 25 years ago has now become an industry leader in robotic crawlers.
Inuktun Services Ltd.'s remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, have combed through the radioactive wreckage of a tsunami-hit nuclear plant in Japan, assisted in search and rescue efforts after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and are being used by the U.S. military.
But despite its international success, the Nanaimo, B.C.-based company remains little known at home.
That's largely because most of its products are sold outside of Canada, said company CEO Colin Dobell.
"We're not really well-known locally and that's OK," he said in a phone interview from the company's head office.
"We're more export than anything...oil and gas and nuclear would be our two biggest markets. But we get into a lot of other kind of oddball stuff too that we never even imagined our equipment would be used for."
Inuktun's agile robots are used to access confined spaces and hazardous environments that humans can't.
Their clients range from Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which used crawlers to inspect inside a natural gas pipe after a fatal pipeline explosion in California five years ago, to Starbucks, which bought cameras to inspect coffee beans on a conveyor.
Earlier this year, Inuktun announced it was sending a custom snake-like crawler to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant to assess the damage from 2011's massive earthquake and tsunami.
After the 9/11 attacks "we sent robotic equipment to Ground Zero to do search and rescue and search and recovery efforts," Dobell said.
"A few years ago, we sold a whole bunch of equipment to the U.S. military to actually use in cross-border tunnel investigation in U.S.-Mexico borders and also overseas in the Middle East."
But Dobell said the most compelling stuff is top secret. The company is kept quiet by big-name clients that don't want the public to know what they're using the technology for.
When Inuktun began in B.C. in 1989, its owners had no idea they would be signing non-disclosure agreements with some of the world's most prominent organizations.
Dobell said that part materialized "largely by accident," after Inuktun's co-founders Terry Knight and Al Robinson – both now retired – started the company "as kind of a fun project to take them into retirement."
"When they started they were building these little swimming ROVs," he said.
"The idea being you would sit on your boat, throw it over the edge and watch the crabs or chase fish or pick up the keys you dropped."
Dobell, who came on board in 1996, said the product was too expensive for a recreational market, but got the attention of the nuclear industry, and spawned the creation of different robotic systems to meet customer demand over the years.
The company no longer does underwater work – it sold that technology off to a company in the U.S. – and is now focusing on confined space crawlers, cameras and inspection equipment.
Domestic sales typically account for less than 10 per cent of Inuktun's business, Dobell said.
"We'd like to be a little better known in Canada, maybe."