TECTERRA Geomatics Initiative Funds GNSS Innovation

July 23, 2014  - By

Photo: Tecterra

TECTERRA is an Alberta government initiative to encourage and support start-ups in the geomatics field in Canada. In June, TECTERRA held its annual Geomatics Showcase at the TELUS Centre in downtown Calgary, where 56 companies and four universities had booths to exhibit their wares, tell their stories, and hopefully generate business.

Since May 2010, TECTERRA has provided $30 million in repayable loans, matched by an $18 million investment by the companies receiving assistance. As companies begin generating revenue from products or services coming out of these programs, they are required to incrementally repay the TECTERRA support funding.

The money TECTERRA has contracted to companies has come through a number of funding programs from the province of Alberta and from the government of Canada. The combined investment is estimated to have generated $58 million in economic benefit to date and is projected to generate a total of $300 million over the next few years. TECTERRA defines geomatics as, “The collection, management, integration, analysis and display of geographic information describing the Earth’s physical features and the built environment.”


A total of 46 industry-led product development and commercialization projects and 25 applied research projects have been supported, and in the process, 10 patents have been filed and another 45 are in development. Eleven companies have started to generate revenue and hence begun making repayments to TECTERRA, while two companies have already completely repaid their loans.

So the bottom line is that TECTERRA appears to be underwriting a portion of the development risk for the companies and projects it supports, and more innovative geomatics concepts are therefore making it through to the market and into useful applications. TECTERRA not only analyzes the financial business case of each project submission, but also pulls together an experienced engineering/academic review team that really digs into the technical viability of the candidate projects. At the show I came across the following Geomatics Industry Association of Canada (GIAC) estimate of the scope of geomatics in Canada:

  • Canada has 20% of the world market, with 40% of that coming from Alberta.
  • A CAGR (Compound Annual Growth) of 15-20%.
  • More than 2,500 companies.
  • 35,000 people working in the industry.

Just about all the TECTERRA companies have come up with a solution that in some way incorporates, uses, or supports GNSS — this is apparently one of several criteria for a TECTERRA project. In walking and talking around the exhibit, I was more drawn to those applications where GNSS is one of the core technology ingredients.

That doesn’t mean to say that these products or companies are more or less likely to succeed or that their application could be better or worse or more or less viable. The province (Canadian for “state”) of Alberta is oil and gas country — and Calgary is a hub for a large number of outfits that supply and support the oil and gas industry. Spin-offs of large and small companies abound, and the half-life of businesses seems to grow shorter every year, but the same people seem to crop up in related ventures all the time, continuously driving technology and business innovation. Working in isolated areas, oil and gas workers are often on their own, miles away from civilization. Companies, however, ensure good communication with their people via repeaters and satellite phone connections. Nevertheless, the time when remote workers most need assistance is when they may be incapacitated and unable to call home base for help.

AbsoluteTrac originally began its operations in the firefighting industry, providing tracking and diagnostic data for pilots. In 2013 it merged with Gemini Positioning Systems to form Absolute Gemini Ltd. The combination of both organizations provided the ability to develop a new hardware product line tailored to a wide range of industries. The strong foundation from Gemini Positioning Systems for work-alone safety allowed all the development work that went into real-time remote worker alert systems over those years to be available to the private sector market, and is in use with a number of oil and gas companies.

With the ability to send automated check-in and emergency messages, the SafetyLink Pendant (SLP) can identify when a user becomes motionless or is in distress. Incorporating the use of a standalone GPS/GLONASS receiver, 3-axis accelerometer, Bluetooth and ZigBee technology, the SLP is compatible with all popular smartphone operating systems via the SafetyLink application, and the TRULink hardware series for equipment monitoring and vehicle tracking. Absolute Gemini Ltd. is a machine-to-machine (M2M) integrator, and has worked closely with a variety of vendors including Blackline GPS another TECTERRA exhibitor in the booth right next-door.

AbsoluteTrac SafetyLink Pendant

AbsoluteTrac SafetyLink Pendant.

BlacklineGPS Lōner alert device and Bridge cell/sat base repeater.

BlacklineGPS Lōner alert device and Bridge cell/sat base repeater.

Rx Networks (Rx) is another well-established company offering, among other things, A-GNSS extended ephemeris.

Rx CEO Guylain Roy-MacHabée left, with booth staff.

Rx CEO Guylain Roy-MacHabée left, with booth staff.

Rx has been supplying indoor/outdoor solutions for E-911 and LBS using Wi-Fi/cellular/GNSS hybrid positioning for smartphones for several years. Its technology and services are used and accessed by most of the major cellphone OEMs and mobile operators. Integrated pressure sensors and “Zed” reference pressure data supply vertical accuracy of 1 to 3 meters for automatic floor-level and map selection. Rx has established a 23-site worldwide GPS, GLONASS, BeiDou and Galileo reference network using NovAtel receivers, which is compatible with popular positioning servers from leading vendors such as Ericsson, NEC, NSN, Qualcomm, and TCS.

GPStream PGPS is the company’s ASIC embedded extended ephemeris product that supports GPS/GLONASS, with both connected and autonomous operation — BeiDou and Galileo support is expected to be available shortly. LiDAR Services International (LSI) is a Calgary-based airborne LiDAR survey company that seems to exclusively use NovAtel precision GPS for its DGPS/RTK base stations and also for airborne GPS reference data collection. NovAtel SPAN inertial/GPS systems are also integrated within its in-house proprietary-developed MATRIX LiDAR systems. LSI has 20 people, with offices in Calgary and Las Vegas, and operates three airborne LiDAR systems. LSI has collected LiDAR data on five continents.

Photo: LiDAR Services International

The layman’s explanation of LiDAR that I picked up at LSI was just enough to make me dangerous, if I wasn’t already pretty lethal. The LiDAR projects up to 500,000 laser pulses/second onto the area being overflown, picks up reflections, and calculates ranges for each pulse. Geocoding using both GPS and inertial then allows post-processing development of a three-dimensional point-cloud image of the surveyed area. For most surveys, LSI also collects digital imaging that can be used to overlay and further reference the point-cloud image.

One interesting application is in power-line surveys where weather data is concurrently collected with LiDAR data, so that wind speed and temperature may be used to calculate cable “sag,” not only from one survey to the next, but also for calibrating weather effects. This data has been used to allow power companies to gain insight into cable power-loading versus cable power-rating — enabling safe and secure increases in loading on existing transmission lines rather than building expensive new lines. LiDAR is also a key tool for vegetation management along transmission corridors. LSI was launching its pipeline leak detection and monitoring subsidiary GAS RECON at the show. We’ll learn more in the future about their plans for “sniffing out” gas and oil leaks from pipelines.


BlackBridge Geomatics was another Canadian company at the show — it probably deserves a mention just on the basis that it has its own constellation of five RapidEye Earth Observation (EO) satellites. No other Canadian companies seem to have that capability, and BlackBridge just announced funding for its next generation of EO satellites. RapidEye enables complete coverage of difficult-to-image areas, and imagery collected by the RapidEye constellation fills archives with large quantities of current geospatial information on a daily basis.

RapidEye satellites can collect up to 5 million km² of imagery daily, which allows BlackBridge to quickly provide large-area coverage and monitoring services for customers. BlackBridge is also the exclusive Canadian distributor for Airbus’ SPOT satellite imigary, and is a North American distributor of the DigitalGlobe WorldView 1 and 2, GeoEye-1, Quickbird, and IKONOS constellations. Lots of other companies were at the TECTERRA Showcase, with geomatics applications and other elements that contribute to a geomatics solution. Here are a few more I talked with:

  • Mobizou — uses mobile location to advertise via smartphones to potential customers
  • Murandi Communciations — supplies multiple radio communications solutions
  • Clearpath Robotics — has developed all-terrain unmanned ground and surface water vehicles for field operations
  • Baseband Technologies — another extended ephemeris supplier.

As I mentioned, there were a whole bunch of Canadian geomatics outfits at the show, and many more deserve a mention — please check out the Showcase Exhibitor List on the TECTERRA website  and visit a few of their websites. Peter Mansbridge is a famous Canadian broadcaster whose appearance at the show may have increased attendance. His stand-up presentation was interesting and humorous, and was aimed at answering the question, “What is a Canadian?” Not many in the audience could have answered the question — it’s something we Canucks puzzle about constantly (it’s a cultural thing). However, through this show, TECTERRA has enabled us to understand a little better the contribution being made to geomatics by a significant group of Canadian start-ups and some more mature companies.

Tony Murfin
GNSS Aerospace

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About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).