Profile: WFS Technologies
Core business: Underwater radio
Turnover: £2 million
“We stumbled into underwater radio,” says Brendan Hyland, founder and chairman of WFS Technologies. “There were no text books and nobody thought it would work, but we struck it lucky. Business is what you do about that opportunity.”
As well as doing something technologically controversial, WFS today is very different from the company originally envisaged. The company was founded in 2003, to work in the “interface between wireless and optical” technologies and “the link from the kerb to the home,” but after it won a major contract from BAE Systems to develop a customised datacomms solution for aircraft, the company took a complete change of direction. The BAE project was both successful and profitable, but WFS did not own the Intellectual Property (IP). Hyland and his partners started to look in other directions – and that was when they “stumbled” into underwater radio and the development of data and video links for underwater signalling.
The technology may have been new, but the idea was more than 150 years old. In 1842, Samuel Morse discovered underwater radio “by accident” when a telegraph cable broke during a transmission across the Hudson River and the message still managed to “jump” across the break in the cable. Later on, many other inventors, including Nikola Tesla, tried to come up with solutions and, during the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union spent “hundreds of millions of dollars” on research, and built low-frequency radio systems for submarines. At that time, there were no commercial applications for underwater radio: control systems were not installed underwater and commercial applications were hard to imagine. But the emergence of technologies such as broadband, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth led to widespread use of wireless systems. In the subsea world, the increased deployment of tethered remotely- operated vehicles (ROVs) and untethered autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) in the petrochemical and defence industries soon changed the rules of the game...
According to Hyland, in 2004, when WFS first considered underwater radio communications, what made the critical difference was his “bloody-minded” refusal to accept the received wisdom that radio does not propagate underwater, and soon after, the research team at WFS developed a low-frequency (20kHz) signalling system which seemed to penetrate sea water.
WFS revisited an old technology, recognising the potential of shorter-range communications over distances of less than ten metres. Ironically, the company started its research unaware of earlier efforts – simply because there was so little documentation.
“We had to find what was possible – then find commercial applications that fitted within this envelope,” says Hyland, and in 2006, WFS unveiled the world’s first commercially available underwater radio modem.
Today, the company describes itself as “the world’s leading supplier of through-water and through-ground wireless technology for communication, navigation and power transfer.” It also boasts of 30 granted patents and 200 patent applications, and supplies its radio, acoustic transmitting and inductive power transfer technologies to the subsea oil and gas, environmental and homeland security and defence industries. WFS now has three product platforms for the energy, environmental, consumer and defence industries, while another major market is wireless back-up solutions for cables in case they malfunction. The key advantages of WFS technology are that it will operate in adverse conditions and is unaffected by acoustic noise or multipath problems.
“Our goal is to support the development of this new market,” says Hyland, who identifies two major reasons for the company's continuing success:
1 Continuous investment in R&D to maintain technology and product leadership
2 An innovative approach to identifying those applications where the company's products can make a difference
Rather than being a spin-out from a university, the intellectual traffic is going in the opposite direction. WFS provides its knowledge and equipment to researchers at universities including MIT, Georgia Tech, Oxford, Edinburgh, Strathclyde and Newcastle. The company has used academic consultants for several small projects, but still does its own R&D.
“When we began, universities were not interested in doing research in underwater radio,” says Hyland (who also believes universities should not hold on to IP but hand it over to people who start up new businesses). “This is changing as the scale of the opportunity has become apparent. We have managed to keep our IP untainted,” he continues. “This helps when doing commercial deals. And our aim is to grow shareholder value by developing IP, licensing technology and selling products and services.”
Working in such a new market also means WFS has to be very creative: “We have to create competition,” says Hyland. “We have been instrumental in setting up the Subsea Wireless Group (SWIG), a not-for-profit organisation tasked with defining open industry standards. This group, with a key theme of interoperability, will ensure all subsea wireless systems can communicate with each other regardless of manufacturer”. Other members of the Subsea Wireless Group include BP, Teledyne Benthos, Chevron, Emerson, HIMA Americas, Technip, Yokogawa, Nautronix, MCS Kenny and Saab.
“As well as setting industry standards, we want to expose major players to what this technology can offer,” says Hyland. “A hundred per cent of nothing is not as much as a small share of a multi-billion dollar market.”
Hyland says that luck as much as hard work put WFS on the road to success, but the company is already thinking one step ahead, designing solutions for very small, hovering AUVs that dock underwater, harvesting data and dumping it, and wirelessly recharging equipment as well as themselves. “It will be a global market,” says Hyland, “and transform the economics of the underwater vehicle industry.”
About Brendan Hyland
Brendan Hyland, founder and chairman of WFS Technologies, studied electrical engineering at Queen’s University, Belfast, and worked in telecoms, industrial instrumentation and the chemical industry before he did his MBA and founded optoelectronics company Kymata in 1998. Hyland stood down as CEO in 2001 and Kymata was subsequently bought by Alcatel. In recent years, he’s focused on “business modelling and business strategy,” especially the meeting point between “emerging technologies and market needs.”