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Ocean tech on the upswing

Sensor Technology finds skills locally, expands in N.S.

We first covered Sensor Technology Ltd what seems like a long time ago, way back in February 2019. At the time, the Collingwood-based piezoelectric ceramics world leader had just opened a satellite office in Nova Scotia with two people and a 500 square-foot workshop.

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When we reached Sensor Technology CEO Niru Somayajula recently, she was en route to Pearson International. We learned that the family business had expanded right through the pandemic, adding 12 staff and 10,000 square feet in Halifax—not to mention upgraded equipment and more positions in Collingwood—for 17,000 square feet and 35 people here at home, and 30,000 square feet nationally.

Underwater listening and a whole lot more

Located on Stewart Road in central Collingwood, Sensor makes piezoelectric ceramics, a surprising evolution from the company that was once Blue Mountain Pottery. These ceramics are essential to a broad range of applications, the biggest of which is underwater sound-based communication. Other uses range from non-destructive testing to medical applications and high-end printing. Sensor Technology manufactures the majority of its components in Collingwood, with approximately 50% of sales as pure ceramics and the other 50% destined for assembly into sensors for underwater use, now largely occurring at its facility in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

The applications for underwater communication devices, from naval submarine communication to gas exploration and commercial fishing, are almost limitless. Sensor’s product is a must for anyone who wants to talk underwater—and it’s apparent that many people do.

Setting up shop in the sensor of the action

Dartmouth’s Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship (COVE) bills itself as “a catalyst in creating the world’s next practical, commercial and revolutionary ocean tech advances”. It’s a bit like Toronto’s MaRS, but with an oceanhead focus. That’s where Sensor has landed for its new product development space, a small part of the total 12,000 square-foot Dartmouth expansion financed in large part by grants and loans from the province of Nova Scotia.

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With end users like the Canadian Navy and the Department of Fisheries, expanding into Dartmouth has created many synergies. “We needed to be near the ocean. It’s really cemented our presence as an ocean tech manufacturer,” says Somayajula. We’ve picked up customers, we’ve picked up vendors…having a presence there has been really good for us.” The company is also able to quickly test its products in salt water with strategic partners, a key part of rapid advancement.

COVID brings new skillsets to Collingwood

Because of its move to Nova Scotia, Sensor Technology has been able to free up space in Collingwood…which it has filled with half a million dollars’ worth of equipment upgrades, not to mention more staff. The result? Production is up, to meet demand. From a sales perspective, COVID did not create any slowdowns. With growth of approximately 30% year-over-year for the past three years, Sensor has a constant need for mechanical and electrical engineers, accounting staff, production techs and quality assurance staff. Pretty much all areas of the business.

Perhaps surprisingly for a smaller community, Sensor Technology had no trouble adding staff here in Collingwood during COVID, something that Somayajula attributes to the pandemic itself. “I think the pandemic inspired a drive to move here from the city and it’s bringing different skillsets to our area. We haven’t tapped into it all, but we will over the next couple of years,” she says. “Assuming people stay…and why wouldn’t they?” she laughs. Somayajula has long been a big proponent of Collingwood’s active lifestyle living: “when most of what you make is exported to more than 40 countries around the world, where’s the need to locate in a big city?”

The new, new ocean thing

According to Somayajula, a big ocean tech trend that’s driving business right now involves gathering more data without the need for humans: through use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), surface vehicles and underwater vehicles (UUVs). The number of manufacturers developing these vehicles has exploded in recent years.

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While UUVs are all the rage for oceanheads of various descriptions, the challenge with UUV sensors is weight and drag. Since these were never factors for shipborne sensors, making them as lightweight and as sleek as possible is a new challenge requiring a whole lot of engineering.

Sensor landed funding from Canada’s Ocean Supercluster for two big R&D projects. The first of these is creating miniaturized sensors for integration into UUVs, which need to gather ocean data of all kinds, far and wide, on limited power. The second R&D project involves developing a towed array of sensors for UUVs.

“A ‘tail’ that’s tens of metres long can carry more sensors, collect more data points and lead to better resolution of an ‘image’” explains Somayajula. The towed arrays historically created by big players such as the Canadian Navy are effective, but for unmanned underwater vehicles miniaturization is key—and no one else has gotten busy doing it.

Underwater spy vs. spy

Somayajula sees underwater imaging as a huge growth area in coming years. “Everyone’s trying to understand what’s happening underwater,” she explains. “Acoustic sensing has a central role to play, like with looking for illegal fishing vessels and port security.” Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) has become a buzz term, with applications like monitoring to ensure that major underwater construction projects such as wind farms and wharves are not affecting marine life more adversely than projected.

All signs are pointing in the right direction for Sensor Technology. If there was one thing Somayajula would change if she could, it’s simply to return to business as usual. “We’re focusing a lot of effort on our communication styles during COVID,” she says. “I can send a prospect a one-minute video of what we do, but what I’m really looking forward to is in-person visits and tradeshows.”

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SOCIAL MEDIA

Instagram: @sensortechnologyltd

Twitter: @sensor_tech

LinkedIn: Sensor Technology Ltd., Canada

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