Canadian Defence Review
December 23, 2014
NovAtel: positioned for NAVWAR
This Calgary-based provider of global navigation satellite system (GNSS) receivers, antennas and anti-jam technology, is gaining global recognition for its flexible solutions and short lead times.
IT entrepreneurs rarely worry about larger players. They have long learnt that when big businesses throw dollars at a project, the result is often endless meetings, discussion papers and prototypes. Resulting products, regardless of technical attributes, thus tend to be pricy and behind schedule. NovAtel, which produces tools to leverage and protect data drawn from global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), believes that that is what is happening in the NAVWAR (Navigation Warfare) market.
Defence forces says Michael Ritter, the company’s CEO, which are demanding increasingly flexible electronic protection, support and attack systems, aren’t getting them as quickly and economically as they should. That means existing technology is not being fully leveraged. “Accuracy is no longer enough,” says Ritter. “Reliable availability of positioning (information) anywhere and anytime has become the new standard.”
Combining COTS and custom solutions
The upshot is that NovAtel, a small, but nimble Calgary-based developer, has been challenging international players, with its innovative and accessible line of COTS and custom receivers, antennas and anti-jam devices. Typical clients tend to be systems integrators who put NovAtel products in military and civilian kit ranging from UAVs, to land vehicles and sensor balls.
The stakes are high says one company veteran. “NAVWAR is an increasingly important part of global conflict,” says Peter Soar, business development manager (military & defence) at NovAtel. “This can be seen by its deployment in a variety of tense environments ranging from the Ukraine, to the North Korean artillery bombardments a few years back.”
Electronic protection, support and attack
According to Soar, effective electronic protection, support and attack consists of knowing where your assets are, protecting that information stream and attacking your enemies’ capabilities. NovAtel tools do all of that. The company’s OEM6 products work well with America’s global positioning system (GPS) technology (whose civilian version is widely used in the automotive sector), and with the three other major GNSS systems: GLONASS (Russia), BeiDou (China) and Galileo (European Union). Novatel systems also incorporate inertial measurement units to refine positioning accuracy.
NovAtel, which bills itself as the “market leader in OEM precision GNSS and inertial products,” has a variety of claims to fame. The company’s 400+ employees do both civilian and defence work, however new technologies are often dual use, so the divisions tend to feed each other’s growth. “Intelligence collected, is useless, if you don’t know where it is coming from,” says Neil Gerein, a NovAtel product manager (military and defence). “For example to properly target an enemy asset, you first need to know precisely where you are.”
A Canadian presence
NovAtel’s real critical capabilities lie in the short lead times that it needs to meet urgent requirements, its wide product range and its robust supply chain, as evidenced in a miniscule lifetime product return rate. While NovAtel does some development in Hyderabad India and has a presence in the United States, Shanghai and the United Kingdom, its Alberta base, where more than 350 employees conduct hardware, software and ASIC design and production represents a big advantage.
A substantial research and development budget, which totals an impressive 30 percent of overall revenues, also provides long-term payoffs. These include a constant flow of innovative solutions that NovAtel is working hard to market to the Canadian military.
GNSS denied: innovation on the anti-jam front
One example is NovAtel’s GAJT anti-jamming products, the GAJT-700ML, GAJT-AE and GAJT-700MS, which are deployed on variety of platforms and can provide protection against as many as six independent threats. These include large vehicles, fixed installations, unmanned aerial systems and marine vessels. Earlier this year the Canadian Army conducted field trials on a land variant.
The testing was conducted on a Light Armoured Vehicle Observational Post (LAV III OPV) variant, under the auspices of the Build in Canada Innovation Program (BCIP) and focused on a range of operational criteria. These included availability, reliability, effect on vehicle systems, inter-operability and performance in NAVWAR and EW jamming scenarios. According to company officials, the results conclusively demonstrated that GAJT “protected the Position, Navigation & Timing (PNT) systems of the vehicle, even while there was GPS jamming in action.” In fact the rumour mill now suggests that that the Department of National Defence is considering broadening its test sample to several dozen additional trial devices.
Ramping up internationally
Although potential dollar amounts are small, any Canadian contract win would be a big one, says Soar, due to the credibility it would give NovAtel on the international stage. “Canada has a reputation for having a clean and transparent procurement system,” says Soar. “So if your technology is taken up by the Canadian forces the effect gets magnified.”
In fact exports represent the vast majority of NovAtel’s sales and business potential going forward. A webinar conducted by company officials on precise GPS and GNSS positioning techniques included viewers from no fewer than 73 countries. Novatel’s biggest potential market is of course the United States, which continues to account for nearly half of available procurement opportunities. Late last year NovAtel announced the win of a US Army Rapid Innovation Fund contract to demonstrated GAJT’s effectiveness and suitability. However as Soar notes, because NovAtel products tend to be integrated into other equipment, contract wins tend to go under the radar. For example the US Navy recently landed a helicopter drone, which used NovAtel equipment, on one of its moving ships.
That said, NovAtel’s outlook is global in scope. Early next year Gerein and Soar are slated to travel to India, to try to pry open this high potential opportunity. Of course that is easier said than done, says Soar. However NovAtel’s relatively low name recognition among some industry segments remains a challenge. “Manufacturers often encourage us to keep quiet for competitive reasons,” explains Soar. “However over the years the secret is starting to get out.”
One big NovAtel selling point overseas: the vast majority of its output is Canadian designed and manufactured. Its offerings thus generally sidestep the considerable delays involved in getting American ITARS (international trade in arms regulations) clearance.
The upshot is that NovAtel can get products to market fast. “Canadian government arms export clearance procedures are tough and onerous,” admits Soar. “However the officials that administer them are professionals, who understand the business implications and streamline the process as much as possible.”
Alberta’s growing geomatics expertise
Novatel’s rise, which has come quietly, in tandem with that of Alberta’s emergence as a center of expertise in geomatics engineering, has manifested itself in specialty markets too. One of these is UAV guidance and control. NovAtel’s dual architecture OEM625S, for example, which started shipping at the start of 2013, is making significant inroads into the US market. The product, which incorporates a Selective Availability Anti-Spoofing Module (SAASM), a chip the enables special encrypted US GPS access, is one of Novatel’s few ITARS-restricted offerings.
Geomatics engineering is a relatively new field (the word doesn’t even appear is older dictionaries), which focuses on spatial information. According to Gerein, the technology’s growth in Alberta, which is home to the Canadian Center for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, has been driven in large part by a substantial talent pool coming out of the University of Calgary, coupled with the region’s vast open areas which facilitate flight testing.
On the attack?
The big question for NovAtel officials on the defence front right now, relates to upcoming products in its development pipeline. One of the most promising of these is a NAVWAR Electronic Attack Trainer (NEAT), which as the name implies, is designed to jam adversary GNSS signals. The initial pre-production prototypes, which were developed in conjunction with Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), feature a range of capabilities including independent controls of L1 and L2, on a range of bands.
In all Gerein is optimistic about NovAtel’s growing role in the global defence sector. “Our international footprint of engineers stationed around the world provides us with the ability to offer support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, should the need arise,” says Gerein. “That coupled with our experience in dealing with private sector clients, who want everything immediately, has left us in an excellent position to respond to changing industry demands. In short, you are going to be hearing the name NovAtel a lot more in the coming years.”
Name: Novatel Inc.
Products: GPS antennas, receivers and anti-jamming devices
Facilities: Calgary (production), India (programming), sales offices in the UK, Houston and Shanghai
Parent company: Hexagon AB, Swedish company based in Hong Kong,
Markets: North America, Europe, China, Brazil
Contact: Neil Gerein product manager (military & defence), Peter Soar, business development manager (military & defence).
Highlight these quotes:
“Intelligence is useless if you don’t know where the information was gathered.”
Peter Soar, business development manager (military & defence) NovAtel.
“Accuracy is not longer enough. Reliable availability of positioning (information) anywhere and anytime has become the new standard.”
Michael Ritter, CEO, NovAtel
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Peter Diekmeyer Communications Inc.