Winds of change: Gastops taps emerging green-energy market for engine-testing sensors

Shaun Horning
Gastops CEO Shaun Horning says the Ottawa-based company sees room for big growth in the wind-turbine customer vertical. Photo courtesy Gastops

An Ottawa company whose cutting-edge technology keeps engines running smoothly in everything from search-and-rescue helicopters to fighter jets is getting a second wind from the green-energy sector after sales to the aviation industry nosedived during the pandemic.   

Gastops specializes in sensors that detect and measure metallic contaminants in engine oil – a “blood test” of sorts that allows technicians to detect potentially damaging scenarios before they happen.

Vital engine parts such as ball bearings, for example, eventually start to grind down and wear out, even with the presence of oil as a lubricant. Gastops’ products function like an early warning system that alerts mechanics to what parts of the engine are most at risk of failure.

The Gloucester-based firm announced earlier this month it’s one of seven Canadian organizations chosen by the Department of National Defence to take part in a new initiative aimed at engineering better systems to monitor the health and safety of military equipment through the federal government’s Defence Excellence and Security program.

Gastops will receive just shy of $230,000 from the feds to help conduct its research, which will integrate the latest in machine-learning technology. It’s not a head-turning sum by any means, but CEO Shaun Horning says the program’s real value comes in opening doors to potential new markets and customers as Gastops collaborates with other leading manufacturers in the predictive maintenance space.

“We see lots of opportunities ahead,” says Horning, who started working at Gastops 27 years ago as a student in Carleton University’s aerospace engineering program and never left. “These (government) programs are so critical.”

Growing headcount

Founded in 1979, Gastops is headquartered on Polytek Road, with additional offices in Halifax and St. John’s as well as a partner firm, Gastops USA, that’s based in Huntsville, Ala., and serves U.S. customers.

While most of its revenues are still derived from customers in the aircraft industry such as Pratt & Whitney, General Electric and Rolls-Royce, Horning says he’s seeing a bit of a shift in the landscape in the wake of the pandemic.

“We were hit hard, just like everybody in that marketplace,” he explains, noting Gastops’ revenues from commercial aviation customers dropped 60-70 per cent in the past year.

Still, the 185-employee firm has actually grown its headcount by about 15 people during the COVID-19 crisis, thanks to a little wind-aided momentum. Horning credits steady growth in sales to European wind turbine manufacturers such as Germany’s Senvion and Danish giant Vestas for helping to offset losses in the aviation vertical over the past 16 months. 

“That’s really carried us through,” Horning says, while noting the firm has still captured only a “small fraction” of the rapidly expanding wind-turbine market. 

The CEO believes there’s also a wealth of untapped sales potential in other parts of the aviation industry, including rotorcraft – more commonly known as helicopters. 

Horning says the sector is “primed for an advance in technology,” and Gastops is working with a number of major helicopter equipment manufacturers to explore ways of more effectively employing its systems in helicopter gearboxes.

In addition, Horning says the company is ramping up R&D efforts to devise new cloud-based software platforms that will allow sensor data to be instantly delivered and displayed to technicians in the field on their mobile devices.

“The days of having a piece of equipment that sat on a desk” are long gone, he notes, and any tech firm worth its salt needs to have top-shelf mobile solutions in its arsenal.  

“Today, everything’s connected and people want to be connected as well,” Horning says.