Keeping in Touch from the Middle of the Ocean
Xeos Technologies Inc.
In 2004, Xeos Technologies Inc. was created “when three engineers left a great local engineering company to start an even greater one.”
With one of the trio departing a few years after its founding, the business today is under the leadership of President and Chief Executive Officer Derek Inglis, Chief Technical officer Gareth Hoar, and Vice President and General Manager Geoff MacIntyre.
Track, monitor, control
Xeos Technologies is a leader in designing and manufacturing low-power telemetry tracking equipment, solutions, and service. From state-of-the-art beacons and flashers to data relays, wave height sensors, remote head beacons, asset trackers, current drifters, and accessories, the Nova Scotia-based business provides highly reliable products for tracking, monitoring, and controlling assets at Sea.
“Derek and Gareth are the ones who have taken Xeos to where it is now,” says MacIntyre of the company, which sees Derek Inglis handling commercial aspects, with Gareth Hoar responsible for the technical side of the business.
In May, Xeos announced the purchase of the REF TEK seismic monitoring portfolio from U.S.-based Trimble. REF TEK is active in seismometers, accelerometers, seismic recorders, and software for earthquake hazard mitigation and scientific studies. Originally acquired by Xeos in early 2020, REF TEK spun out and became a separate company in November 2020.
With a staff of about 20, Xeos’s team includes engineers, electronics technicians and scientists. With all products made in Dartmouth, the company supports the local economy, including CNC machining and printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturers.
With products ranging in price from about $800 to $5,000, beacons, wave height sensors and other items are distributed through many marine and data telemetry businesses worldwide from the United States to South Africa and everywhere in between. Selling direct to Canadian customers, Xeos is proud to serve clients wherever they are located.
Over 90 percent of Xeos’s sales are exports outside of Canada. “A big part of our business is in the United States, a big part is in Europe, and a big part is in Asia,” says MacIntyre of the company, which has a strong Internet presence. Representatives of the company are also regularly seen at international trade shows and scientific conferences. “A lot of our clients are scientists themselves,” says MacIntyre.
Built for brutal treatment
Xeos’s customers primarily include scientists, engineers, and technologists, people who are putting together platforms and robotic systems designed to go in the oceans either for scientific research or for marine operational projects, including oil and gas, offshore wind, and other marine renewable energy projects.
Unlike products made for use on land, Xeos Technologies’ beacons, asset trackers, wave height sensors and other items are created to withstand Earth’s most brutal environments, from sub-zero temperatures to highly corrosive salt water, and almost unimaginable ocean depths.
Some products remain on the surface, while others are submerged hundreds or even thousands of meters deep, often in remote areas, where they will sit on the floor of the ocean collecting data and performing their monitoring activities for up to two years before being recovered.
“Our products are made to go to the deepest parts of the ocean, which can be 11,000 meters down – at pressures of about 16,000 psi – and have to work when they get back to the surface,” says MacIntyre.
When it is time for the device to be retrieved, an acoustic ‘ping’ triggers a release. This releases the instrument package from its mooring, and it rises to the surface. From there, the beacon, by means of the GPS network and Iridium® – a 66-satellite voice and data communications system – sends a message to the user showing its exact location.
“That,” says Macintyre, “is one of the engineering challenges of making beacons that need to communicate with satellites, and then come back up. The antennas and all the systems need to be able to withstand extreme pressure, and still work.”
To protect the inner workings in punishing environments, cases are made from titanium. Much lighter and stronger than steel, titanium can handle deep oceanic pressures, and doesn’t corrode in salt water.
The size of Xeos beacons often depends on the reserve power capacity of batteries. Smaller beacons are about the size of a soda can, while larger ones are comparable to a large flashlight. “They are designed to be energy efficient and to last a long time,” MacIntyre notes.
Beacons are reusable once batteries are replaced. It is not uncommon for beacons to be alternately out in the field – that is, the depths of the ocean – and en route back to Xeos. This can be the life of a beacon for over a decade, returning from the deep blue every so often to be inspected and tested.
Much has changed since Xeos Technologies was first founded. Alkaline and lithium battery technology has evolved. Early beacons used radio signals and flashing lights to communicate which worked, but required someone to be on the deck of a ship with a handheld receiver and a radio beacon and antenna to pick up the signal.
Today, satellite communication networks have developed and evolved. “Most of our beacons now have satellite communication modems in them so they send the location back remotely. They can be anywhere in the world and you can track things from your office,” says MacIntyre.
“Those networks have improved drastically over the past 17 years to the point that they are much more reliable, with greater coverage. The use cost has gone down because they have many more applications now, and many more users.”
Xeos primarily uses the Iridium satellite system, owing to its reliability and years in business. Xeos became an official Iridium partner in 2012 and has been developing products and services with Iridium technology ever since. “It basically has 100 percent coverage of the entire planet and has very advanced technology. It can provide near-real-time communications anywhere in the world. So when a beacon pops up in the southern ocean, we can hear about it five minutes later.” Messages from less advanced systems can lag several hours due to the isolated nature of their satellites and inability to relay messages in real time.
To provide the highest level of access, Xeos created XeosOnline™, a cloud-based portal used by customers to manage all the beacons they have out in the field. A web-hosted application, XeosOnline streamlines management of beacons, including Iridium, Argos and cellular. Through this ultra-convenient platform, clients have everything in one place, from data collection and analysis to configuration tools. Accessible through a computer or mobile phone, XeosOnline alerts customers when a beacon surfaces. When a beacon reaches the surface of the ocean, it immediately acquires a GPS fix, determines its location, then sends a message through the Iridium satellite network to XeosOnline. From there an alert is sent by email to the customer, informing them of what happened, where it is and where it is headed.
One of Xeos’s current projects is with Canada’s Ocean Supercluster.
A large federally-funded organization, Canada’s Ocean Supercluster includes over 275 industry and associate members focused on sustainable ocean growth. A unique endeavour, it is focused on growing the nation’s ocean economy “in a digital, sustainable, and inclusive way,” according to https://oceansupercluster.ca.
With the support if the Ocean Supercluster, Xeos has teamed up with a small group of local Ocean Tech companies to produce a brand-new set of optical water quality sensors for aquaculture and environmental monitoring. The new sensors will measure critical water quality parameters like turbidity, algal fluorescence and pH to help inform aquaculture operators about the health of the environment within which their fish are growing.
While much of the company’s work centres on beacons to help locate platforms and instruments and buoys, Xeos is seeing an increase in devices attached to robotic autonomous vehicles in oceans used for exploration or inspection.
“All of these autonomous vehicles need to know where they are and operators need to communicate with them, so that’s a good market for us as well,” says MacIntyre. Other more unusual uses include dropping beacons from helicopters onto ice flows, monitoring shipping containers around the world, and even tracking oil spills and surface currents.
From measuring wave heights in real time to serving the aquaculture industry, Xeos Technologies maintains its position at the front of the pack.
“We are very responsive to customer needs and as such do a lot of customization. We pride ourselves on being flexible and agile,” says MacIntyre. “We are not like a big organization that’s difficult to turn – the key advantage of being small is that we can change direction pretty quickly. This happens a lot in the science and marine technology markets because the applications are evolving constantly – you have to keep up,” he says.
“We enjoy collaborating with customers on new projects, and developing something they might need if it doesn’t exist,” he shares. “We like to position ourselves as partners in customer projects, not just vendors.”