Atlantic Canada is a world leader in underwater imaging technology. How are those revelations affecting ocean interactions?
In early November, a survey team associated with Karl Kenny’s company, Kraken Robotics Inc., had just returned from a two-and-a-half-week North Atlantic surveying trip. Using his company’s sonar equipment, the group scanned parts of the southern Grand Banks, some of the Maritime Link cable between Newfoundland and Cape Breton, offshore fishing grounds, and some oil and gas infrastructure.
“The boys are just back in from that campaign… It’s starting to get a bit nasty out there now so we wanted to get ahead of the weather,” Kenny said in an interview. “We’re digesting and analyzing all that data we collected as part of that OceanVision project.”
Kenny is the founder, chief executive and largest shareholder of Kraken, a St. John’s-based company whose sonar-imaging technology allows operators to see very small objects on the seabed. The company, founded in 2012, also supplies the unmanned, underwater vehicles used to deploy its imaging equipment, and has done work, according to Kenny, for clients in 10 countries, including Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and the Canadian and U.S. navies.
Kraken’s technology has also been used in some underwater historical hunts, including, in 2014, the search for two ships, Erebus and Terror, connected to the doomed Franklin Expedition in the Arctic. “It’s all about resolution, it’s about detail,” Kenny says. “We can see things we could never see before.”
Kraken is one of a half dozen or so Newfoundland and Labrador companies (among them SubC Imaging in Clarenville, and SULIS Subsea Corporation and PanGeo Subsea Inc., both in St. John’s) that are developing and selling technology for underwater imaging. It’s a field Kenny says is growing and ripe with company-expanding potential.
As evidence, he says his company’s revenues will double this year to $15 million, and more than double again in 2020 and 2021, when he expects revenues to push up to $80 million. “We’re hunting elephants and we’re starting to win some of them,” he says. “We’re firing on all cylinders.”
In June 2019, Kraken’s OceanVision project was the first venture approved through Canada’s Ocean Supercluster, a $300-million research initiative intended to boost the East Coast’s ocean-related industries, including fishing, aquaculture, oil and gas, renewable energy, defence, shipbuilding and transportation.
The ocean supercluster, basically a private-sector research program that’s funded 50 per cent by government (roughly $150 million), is one of five Innovation Superclusters supported by the federal government. In total, Ottawa is putting nearly $1 billion into the superclusters (the others involve digital technology, protein industries, next-generation manufacturing and artificial intelligence).
The ocean supercluster concept was pitched—and initially funded with about $2 million—by a group of business executives from the energy and seafood sectors.
Kraken’s three-year, $20-million OceanVision project is funded partly by the federal government with $5.9 million. The rest of the money is coming from organizations interested in the research, among them: Petroleum Research Newfoundland & Labrador, an oil and gas research group, which has already pledged up to $30 million for the supercluster; Ocean Choice International LP, a St. John’s-based seafood company that is combining with Grieg NL, a Marystown, N.L.-based aquaculture company, to give up to $15 million over five years to supercluster projects; and the Nunavut Fisheries Association.
The plan is to map, in detail, specific areas of ocean bottom. The resulting high-resolution seabed data could have potential applications—from safety to cost cutting—in fishing, oil and gas, and even defence. “The data collected through this project will be used to help further inform our decision-making in our offshore fishing operations as we continue to look for ways to improve our efficiencies and sustainability efforts,” Cara Pike, of Ocean Choice, said in an email.
Kenny has said the data will allow fishing companies to fish with surgical precision. “This is not some pie in the sky R&D,” he says.
Kraken will conduct the sonar imaging for the project, with the funders then using the resulting data as it applies to their businesses. Common to all involved is a need for high-resolution underwater data. “We’re basically trying to gather the highest resolution data that’s humanly possible and then share it across the stakeholder community,” Kenny says. “What the fisheries folks are interested in is distinct from what the oil and gas guys want.”
With sonar technology, Kenny says Kraken is generating “centimetre-level accuracy.” A new product, using lasers, is producing “millimetre level accuracy” and can be used for surveying subsea assets like pipelines. He says it’s basically a 3D model of what’s on the seabed. “That’s getting a lot of attention,” he adds.
“All the tools you need for subsea survey we’ve got in our tool chest right now.”
Three-dimensional imaging is the primary focus of Whitecap Scientific, another St. John’s-based underwater imaging company. Founder and primary shareholder Sam Bromley says Whitecap has developed software that turns data from existing underwater cameras into 3D images, and notes the company has done work for oil and gas companies such as BP, ExxonMobil Corp., and ConocoPhillips.
“We see ourselves as the natural upgrade to traditional video inspection,” says Bromley. “We make it easy to collect three-dimensional data of your scene. We make it as easy as collecting regular video.”
The goal, he adds, is to make the dark subsea world more accessible. “We’re trying at least to make it a little bit closer to actually being down there,” he says. “Now you’re a part of that world.”
Whitecap, which was founded in 2011 and has received money from the Business Development Bank of Canada, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and National Research Council of Canada, provides only centimeter accuracy, which Bromley says allows the company to offer an easy-to-deploy and relatively low-cost option. In many cases, he argues, sub-millimetre scanning is “overkill”. “We’re trying to make 3D as easy as possible,” he adds. “We leave the high-end stuff to (others)”.
According to Bromley, Whitecap could be profitable this year. “We’re not really going gangbusters yet,” he concludes. “We’re hoping this spring coming is going to be the big turning point.”
Back at Kraken, Karl Kenny also says his company could be profitable this year. The company’s bottom line will benefit from its most recent haul: a $40-million contract with a major European navy, which will involve upgrading the navy’s mine hunting sonar equipment.
According to Kenny, Kraken beat out two major U.S. defence contractors, and a French company, to win the contract, which was awarded in October.
“We’re punching way above our weight,” Kenny says. “And these guys are all billion-dollar companies. And we beat ‘em. To me that is massive validation of what’s going on here… We have world-class, state-of-the-art technology. We are equal to or even better than some of the big guys.”
Kraken now has 100 employees in Canada, the U.S. and Germany, and Kenny says the company is looking at other acquisitions for 2020.
Still, he notes that the underwater imaging sector remains small and “very niche” in Atlantic Canada. “From an Atlantic Canada perspective I don’t see competitors,” he says. “I think we’re kind of uniquely positioned.”
He adds, though, that it’s a “multi-million-dollar market world-wide.” And there lies the potential for the handful of local companies striving in the sector.
“If we can get this working here in these weather conditions in Atlantic Canada, in this environment, then golly we’re going to be able to get this working anywhere,” Kenny says. “We build it here, we test it here, and then we export it to the world. That’s the opportunity.” •