Kanata-based Kwesst on-target for breakthrough into U.S. military market

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Members of the U.S. Marine Corps test Kwesst’s technology. Photo provided

A local startup’s technology that helps soldiers zero in on suspected targets appears to be hitting its mark with potential military customers.

Kanata-based Kwesst was launched two years ago by Jeff MacLeod and Warren Downing, a pair of former Colt Canada executives. While MacLeod is the primary owner of the seven-person company, its investors also include a number of well-heeled angels from Ottawa and the United States.

Kwesst’s engineering team has developed a series of sensors that can be attached to weapons such as high-powered assault rifles. The sensors can pinpoint precisely where ammunition such as bullets or grenades will make contact with a target, and the impact point is then displayed on a digital map on a user’s android device.

The system effectively allows combatants to get an accurate bead on targets even when they’re behind cover, says Downing, adding the high-tech equipment made members of the U.S. Marine Corps do a double-take when they saw a demonstration last year. Militaries from other NATO countries have also expressed interest in the technology, he adds.

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A view of Kwesst's modular weapon attachment, providing a precise view of the ammunition's trajectory. Photo provided

He says the company’s modular approach allows the system to be tailored to each customer’s particular needs and budgets.

While it takes tens of millions of dollars to develop new small arms devices, “we give near-precision capability for about $30,000 apiece, so it becomes a no-brainer,” explains Downing, the firm’s general manager.

"When we demonstrate it, it’s just like, ‘Oh my God. Where have you guys been hiding?’”

“In some cases, it’s very hard for them to believe it, but when we demonstrate it, it’s just like, ‘Oh my God. Where have you guys been hiding?’”

Kwesst’s equipment makes weapons even “smarter” by allowing soldiers to share data about a target’s location instantly over a secure wireless network.

“Rather than one person engaging a target, you can have multiple people engage a target, and therefore become more lethal,” says Downing, a former engineer in the Royal Australian Air Force who worked for various tech and defence companies in Ottawa ​– including Nortel and General Dynamics Canada ​– before helping get Kwesst off the ground.

More products are coming down the pipeline, he adds.

For example, the company plans to ramp up R&D on new technology that will deliver images of a target’s location to a display screen in a soldier’s goggles, eliminating the need to look down at a mobile device.

Downing says the firm is also working on a deal with California-based AeroVironment ​– the top supplier of drones to the Pentagon ​– to integrate its systems into live video feeds from unmanned aerial vehicles, providing even more precise target co-ordinates.

Downing hopes to announce more details of that partnership later this summer. He says Kwesst has already heard from a couple of venture capitalists who are interested in putting money into the west-end startup once it lands some major contracts.

“It takes time to build up your reputation,” he says.

Complex components

Kwesst manufactures its prototypes in Kanata, producing many of the components on 3D printers from materials such as carbon fibre and reinforced Kevlar.

While some of the elements of its systems are bought from other sources, Downing says Kwesst often has to get creative to ensure its products are robust enough to hold up to the rigours of battle.

That sometimes means making complex components such as circuit boards on its own equipment. Downing says Kwesst would love to bolster its arsenal of technology with the latest in 3D printers that use metal filament, but the $80,000 price tag for such a device is prohibitive for such a young venture.

“It would actually speed things up even quicker,” he notes.

But he says the company is not slowing down its efforts to hone its technology in the hope of gaining a foothold in the lucrative U.S. defence sector, where multimillion-dollar procurement deals are the norm.

“If we were relying on the Canadian market, we would have gone wheels up ages ago,” adds Downing.

The company plans to demonstrate its latest technology at CANSEC, the global defence and security trade show coming up this week from May 29-31 at the EY Centre.

Downing says after a couple of years of keeping their nose to the grindstone, Kwesst’s founders, employees and backers are confident they’ve set their sights on the right market.

“We’re starting to come to the light in the tunnel,” he says.