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Coast guard, navy and global boaters rely on B.C. firm’s monitoring tech

Coast guard, navy and global boaters rely on B.C. firm’s monitoring tech

Technology Sector Ocean Sciences and Marine Technology Technology Services

Devices tracking derelict boats as Barnacle Systems also aims to bring boaters peace of mind

As an engineer freshly out of university, Brandon Wright soon found himself making regular trips to the Middle East to develop remote monitoring equipment for the C.I.A. and the U.S. Air Force.

For years, the gig saw him help those agencies detect incoming threats in remote locations, which made it all-too ironic when an incident back home on the Island caught Wright off guard. He awoke in the middle of the night to a call from his dad saying the family’s 27-foot sailboat had broke anchor and beached itself ashore right outside his parents’ Mill Bay home.

“It was embarrassing because my entire career had been developing remote monitoring equipment but I couldn’t remotely monitor my own boat,” he said in an interview with Black Press Media.

Immediately after, Wright began shopping around for a device that could keep tabs on his boat and send an alert to his phone if it moved or something went wrong. To his surprise, the marketplace yielded zero results.

In that technological gap, the engineer saw an untapped opportunity and over the past seven years has grown his boat-monitoring company, Barnacle Systems, into an operation with global reach, but also one that’s helping protect aquatic ecosystems and inform the next generation of naval ships here at home.

The company that operates out of Oak Bay Marina launched the first iteration of its BRNKL monitoring system in 2017. The device – now used by boaters in at least 40 countries – aims to provide peace of mind as it sends owners an alert via an app if any of their boat’s systems are malfunctioning, such as pumps not working or a battery dying.

But even as business took off on the recreational side, Wright’s interest kept getting pulled toward the military realm because his previous job taught him how to write proposals and connect with government officials.

Without much excess capital for marketing, the company’s main strategy early on was partnering with YouTube boaters who were sharing their positive experiences using BRNKL devices. One of those videos caught the eye of a Canadian Coast Guard employee.

To avoid crews having to physically watch a derelict freighter to make sure it didn’t float down the Fraser River over the Christmas holiday, the coast guard needed something that could remotely monitor the vessel, which had 7,000 litres of fuel and oil onboard.

After making a BRNKL model that met the Coast Guard’s needs, Barnacle Systems further refined the device for them and now its products are used by the agency to track derelict vessels across the country.

Wright has taken his young daughter to play at Greater Victoria beaches, only to find the shoreline spots are unsafe due to scrap pieces from derelict boats that have floated in. He finds it rewarding the company is helping prevent such incidents, along with ensuring trouble boats don’t spill pollutants or run aground on sensitive seafloors.

“To know the we’re now directly impacting the coast cuard’s ability to protect our coastlines is incredible,” the CEO said.

That impact all began with Wright starting the endeavour out of his mudroom as he designed circuit boards and laid the foundations for their app. He then worked in a Victoria tech incubator’s lobby before getting a grant that allowed him to bring on a software developer to finish the app’s first version.

The devices suddenly started to sell, allowing the team to grow methodically as the bootstrapped enterprise secured a workspace in the back of an engineering company’s building. It then moved into a one-room floating office outside Oak Bay Marina where the cramped engineers cranked out the BRNKL components while swaying with every wave.

The company has since moved inside the marina building, where the devices are assembled, circuit boards are designed and software is written. Keeping all that work in-house bodes well for bidding on government contracts, including one that saw a BRNKL system installed in a local navy vessel in January.

Wright said the device becomes the main data-collection and storage hub – or the brain – of the military vessel as it’s fed information from the boat’s major operating systems. It’s even tracking data from body-worn sensors that are monitoring the vitals of crew members or the vibrations of their bodies when waves strike the ship.

The navy wants that data from its older boats to inform the shift to an upgraded fleet, so the onboard BRNKL tracks all kinds of performance information, Wright said. That data, for example, can show the government how the ship’s greenhouse gas emissions would fall if it used certain fuel additives or how different hull coatings would reduce drag.

“We’re really trying to help get them the data that they need so they can actually make improvements and measure those improvements,” he said.

It’s a dream come true for Wright to see his team of mostly University of Victoria grads help shape the next generation of Canada’s defense fleet. Since the company benefited from federal grants, he also sees it as a way of giving back by helping the government, and therefore taxpayers, save millions of dollars through more informed procurement.

Barnacle Systems hopes its products can also offer reassurance to other water-based enforcement agencies, like police or Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

“They need to be prepared and ready to go at a moment’s notice and our product will make sure their boat is ready to go,” Wright said, noting BRNKL would alert the agencies if their boat had a dead battery and it can also store video evidence of enforcement actions.

The Comox-born entrepreneur has always loved being on the water, so he relishes getting to help quell the concerns of boaters all over the world. They frequently get messages from users saying their BRNKL alerted them about an issue that could’ve sank their boat or that its sirens warded off someone looking to break in.

Wright’s goal is that Barnacle Systems comes to mind when people think of boat security. The company also hopes to grow by vying for some government contracts in the U.S.

But no matter how much international business the company does, Wright takes a lot of pride in their products being 100 per cent Canadian, so he hopes to prove you can develop something of value right here in Greater Victoria.

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Media Contact : Terrance Standard

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