World markets warm to Kanata firm’s high-tech ocean sensors

RBR carves out key niche with devices that help track Earth’s vital signs
RBR

With the earth’s temperature on the rise and global warming a hot topic the world over, a Kanata North company is quietly carving out a major market niche with high-tech products that help measure the planet’s vital signs.

“What was a small business now is getting larger,” says Eric Siegel, director of sales and marketing at RBR, which employs about 65 people at its headquarters on Hines Road and dozens more at offices around the world.

Founded in 1973 by British-born engineer Richard Brancker in his Glebe basement, RBR started out as an electronics consultant serving the federal government. After Brancker retired in the late 1990s, fellow Brit expat Frank Johnson took over and focused the company’s efforts on a sensor the firm had developed to measure water temperature.

Since then, RBR has evolved into one of the world’s foremost producers of cutting-edge sensors that travel to the depths of the ocean, recording and documenting data that not only includes the temperature of the water but other vital information such as water pressure, the amount of salt in the ocean and the levels of oxygen in the sea.

Such variables provide invaluable data for scientists studying the long-term impact of global warming, and RBR’s growing list of customers today features major foreign agencies such as NASA, the U.S.-based National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

“The oceans are big, big indicators of climate change,” Siegel notes, adding that changing oxygen levels in the world’s seas threaten the long-term survival of fish, coral and plankton that are vital components of the food chain and, in the case of plankton, produce up to half of the planet’s oxygen through photosynthesis.

Johnson’s son Greg, an expert in X-ray instrumentation and material science, assumed control of the company in the early 2010s. 

Since then, the firm has expanded its range of products to include sensors for unmanned robotic devices that deliver its equipment as far as 2,000 metres deep in the ocean and transmit data to customers via satellite. RBR’s sensors are embedded in the earth’s crust in coastal areas of Japan and British Columbia, where they measure the tilt of the ocean floor as well as sea pressure and vibrations that can be early warning signs of tsunamis triggered by distant earthquakes. Its products are even buried in arctic permafrost.

Though it’s still the “underdog” in a highly specialized industry ​– Siegel estimates that RBR accounts for around 20 per cent of global sales of tools that “take the pulse of the ocean” – he says it’s gaining on its competition. RBR’s products are versatile, he explains, and use very little power – the sensors run on AA batteries that generally don’t need to be replaced for several years.

China-based subsidiary

As a result, the company is growing its revenues at an annual rate of 20 to 30 per cent and has boosted its global headcount from 50 three years ago to about 85 today. RBR is a truly global enterprise, generating about a third of its revenues in China and another 40 per cent in other parts of the world.

In an effort to serve the rapidly growing response to its products in the world’s most populous country, RBR opened a wholly owned subsidiary in the Chinese port city of Qingdao in late 2018, where it now employs three sales and technical staff. The company also has salespeople on the ground in the U.S., France and New Zealand.

RBR now has employees who speak seven languages, ranging from German and Portugese to Mandarin and Japanese. Siegel says it’s all part of the firm’s bid to better serve customers that come from a multitude of cultures and have different business customs. 

“We need to have people that speak those languages and understand those systems,” he explains.

Although RBR has chosen to set up shop in a city that’s a full day’s drive from the nearest sea – Siegel jokes that it’s “equally inconvenient to all three of Canada’s oceans” – he says that’s not a drawback to becoming a global leader in its field. Developing and building RBR’s technology requires top-notch engineers, skilled manufacturing personnel and sharp technical minds, “and we can find lots of those in Ottawa,” he says.

Noting the climate change is becoming a more pressing problem by the day, Siegel expects RBR to continue branching out into new markets and technologies.

“The entire market is growing because everyone’s realizing that the oceans are important,” he says. “There’s a big push all around the world to really try to understand that more.”