For Jason Gillham, a lifelong fascination with underwater exploration reached its apex a couple of months ago.
Aboard an exploratory boat in the Atlantic Ocean, Mr. Gillham was there when marine archaeologist Joe Hoyt and the pilot of a two-person submersible became the first people to set eyes upon a Second World War German U-boat since it sank 74 years ago.
"With my passion being the underwater exploration side of things, any time we can get involved with these kinds of cool projects – the shipwreck projects – that's amazing," he says.
It was that passion that led him to found Waterloo, Ont.-based 2G Robotics Inc. in 2007 to further underwater exploration through the use of laser scanners that allow for the creation of 3-D renderings of boats and other watercraft.
The laser data give accurate geometric points of an object, so the models built from the scanning process give more than just a picture but also allow for measurements and quantifiable information for a greater understanding of the object, Mr. Gillham, the company's chief executive officer, adds.
"Laser scanning is becoming the standard for high precision underwater work," he says.
In the case of the U-boat, the battlefield off the coast of North Carolina was discovered just a couple of years ago. The final resting place of the German submarine and a nearby freighter, the S.S. Bluefields that was sunk by the Germans, was 210 metres deep. Given that the deepest recreational divers can go is about 100 metres, 2G Robotics' lasers, with a limit of about four kilometres, allow for exploration of some of the ocean's more off-limits places.
With the collected data, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which originally discovered the battlefield, can now find out what happened all those years ago.
"They'll be able to start analyzing the footage, the video and imagery that was collected by a variety of systems, including ours, to start answering the questions that are unknown on this boat," Mr. Gillham says. "Exactly what sunk that U-boat?"
Though situations like German U-boats are more the exception than the norm, Mr. Gillham explains that customers generally come to him with one of three different problems.
The first is they want to perform recurring inspections on something like a pipeline, for instance.
The second occurs during construction of a pipeline and when it comes to connecting two pieces of pipe together: 2G Robotics can use its laser technology to measure the distance between the two separate pieces to accurately determine the dimensions of a connecting piece.
The third is when there is known damage, and 2G Robotics can assess the extent of the destruction. That was the case when the company helped out with righting the Italian cruise ship the Costa Concordia, which ran aground off the coast of Italy in 2012.
"We need to model it so we can then understand what the next correct action is," Mr. Gillham says.
In the case of the Costa Concordia, 2G Robotics was originally brought on board to help design some stands inside of the bow thrusters of the boat to help with the righting of the vessel. But then the company also helped map the damaged side of the ship in order to figure out how best to attach the floats to raise it.
Mr. Gillham says his company, which employs about 15 people, started to get its technology to market about six years ago. Despite the downturn in the oil and gas industries – both heavy users of his technology – the business has grown 50 per cent year over year since 2010, he says, partly because customers in those markets are using his technology to look for ways to save time and money.
Revenues for 2G Robotics are currently in the "multimillions," with Mr. Gillham estimating that his company is in the top three of its industry globally.
The company has also had its technology used on all seven continents, says Mr. Gillham, who is originally from Collingwood, Ont. Part of that growth has been due to partnerships the company has struck with overseas distributors to represent its brand in new markets.
"We really rely on partners that have great local connections so they open the doors for us," he says.
Managing the day-to-day running of a business and all that it entails is very much a departure for a former competitive skier who completed his MBA in mechanical engineering at the University of Waterloo. However, Mr. Gillham has had to learn the ropes as he goes along, doing a part-time MBA at Wilfrid Laurier University to get his head around all aspects of running the business, from human resources and project management to motivating staff and business structure.
However, a lot of his experience has come from reading books on his own time.
"That need for self-learning has been a substantial part, and without it we wouldn't have been successful," he says.