Water and fire fuel tech firm’s success

Water and fire fuel tech firm’s success
21 September 2011

published by www.timescolonist.com

Canada — Having tamed fire, a Victoria high-tech company has turned its attention to water and one of its first forays into the ripples has earned it a two-year, $1.7-million contract with the federal government to gather and analyze data from the country’s water supply.

Forest Technology Services, a 30-year-old Victoria firm, won the bid from the Water Survey of Canada to be the primary supplier of systems to measure, record and analyze information from streams, rivers and water reservoirs.

“It’s about getting us into another segment, a very credible beachhead with a credible customer,” said FTS chief executive David Illing. “This expands our reach into a slightly tangent industry. Once in and you prove yourself, then you can grow. That’s very important in terms of penetrating a new market.”

Illing said the contract marked a significant milestone for the company’s hydrology division, which has been working on the water project for three years. Some of its equipment is already used in the watersheds of the Lower Mainland and Sooke to gauge the turbidity, or clarity, of the resource.

“We have proved our equipment in the fireweather management side and now we’re increasing our reach in hydrology,” said Illing.

FTS will supply the Water Survey with its datalogger system, a rugged computer that works with monitoring stations. The data collected will be used in various applications, such as determining the engineering required for bridges or to predict flooding.

The move to hydrology is a slight step out of the comfort zone for FTS, which made its name with fireweather monitoring systems.

The systems, often installed in remote locations over vast spaces, are used to predict, prevent and manage wildfires.

Illing notes most North Americans will have seen the results of FTS’s work on roadside fire hazard signs, which change depending on the data collected by the company’s remote equipment.

“It’s all about predicting the dryness of the forest,” said Illing, noting the equipment measures multiple variables such as solar radiation, temperature, humidity, precipitation, the humidity just above the ground, wind speed and wind direction.

That data is used by forest managers, such as B.C.’s Forests Ministry, to determine a course of action for a particular area of forest.

Depending on the terrain, one monitoring station can cover as many as 1,000 square kilometres, while a group of monitors may be stationed in a small valley with some at the base and others on the slopes.

“It’s based on the biodiversity and the variance in climatology,” said Illing.

There are now more than 4,000 monitoring devices installed around the world. The vast majority are on North American soil – including 55 in Texas and Oklahoma, where they recently watched over and predicted the movement of massive wildfires, allowing firefighting crews to develop evacuation and fighting strategies.

Illing said FTS has become a world leader in the technology, which has allowed it to grow significantly in recent years.

Last year the company achieved 68 per cent sales growth resulting in an estimated $10 million in revenue; it expanded its workforce to 50 people, most of them in research and development.

Dan Gunn, executive director of the Victoria Advanced Technology Council, which listed FTS on its top 25 list for revenue over the last several years, said the company is the prototypical Victoria high-tech firm. “They have innovated and are competing on a global stage and continue to be a terrific job producer,” he said.

“We’re happy to be investing when others are cutting back,” said Illing.

He sees more growth on the horizon.

“Monitoring our natural environment is a growth industry,” he said, noting climate change is making forest fires hotter and more damaging. “With climate change, we’re trying to understand those environmental issues. We’re seeing a lot of change in the natural environment, so in terms of remote monitoring we see an increasing number of applications.”

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