Mount Pearl technology company GRI Simulations Inc. decided in the late 1990s to shift its focus from surveying and seabed mapping technology to training simulators for remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) based on a perceived need for such services.
As a means of having a technology company with its roots in the mid-1980s survive into the new millennium and beyond, it was a smart move.
In less than 10 years, GRI managed to get its simulators into the hands of the Canadian Navy, and oil and gas companies with operations in the Gulf of Mexico and North Sea.
Over the last eight years, the company has more than doubled its workforce from 10 to 24 employees. The number of countries where GRI ROV simulators are in use is expanding.
“We’ve got simulators in China, Russia, the U.S., Brazil, Canada of course, England, Norway, Belgium, France, Africa, Singapore — it’s a lot of places I haven’t been,” laughs Steve Dodd, the company’s vice-president of operations and business development.
It all started with Oceaneering, a global company that provides engineering services and products to the oil and gas industry. With ROV operations of its own and pilots to train, Oceaneering was GRI’s first customer.
“They were the biggest company of that type at that time — a global company,” said Dodd.
Schools that offered ROV pilot training programs were also among GRI’s earliest customers, and work soon followed with the Canadian military, and offshore oil and gas projects. Having so many early adopters ultimately improved GRI’s product.
“The more closely you work with companies, the better understanding you get of what their requirements are,” said Dodd. “So we were able to build a better product.”
Thanks to the company’s experience with surveying and subsea mapping, GRI was well acquainted with sonar technology. That resulted in a competitive advantage for the company that continues to exist, according to Dodd.
“When we came out, we had a very nice sonar. None of our competitors still have a sonar that’s really what I would consider suitable for training and using in mission planning or training applications.”
In 1998, it took seven computers to share the processing work necessary to operate an ROV simulator built by GRI.
Today, that work can be handled by a laptop computer. With advances in technology, GRI’s product can now do much more than provide a basic ROV simulation. It can offer training for unique missions involving a slew of environmental variables.
“That ushered in the age of what was known as mission planning rehearsal as opposed to just pilot training, and that grew for a number of years and more companies got involved,” explains Dodd. “It started with the training, and then added the mission planning and rehearsal that (companies we served) could offer to their customers, who would tend to be oil companies at that point.”
As ROV operations companies became more interested in what GRI had to offer, so did ROV manufacturers.
“As the product developed, now a lot of what we do goes directly to oil companies, and for their engineering requirements for designing oilfields and keeping track of what’s happening in their project and what their project looks like, what the problems they’ve experienced are and what the challenges ongoing are. They can be used by the people who are solving the challenges and the problems to assist them in getting to the best solutions.
“In general, a simulator is able to provide substantially more challenging environments ... that a new pilot wouldn’t really get to see. So they get to work in the simulator under very difficult circumstances. You’ll always want to have your catastrophes and disasters in the simulator rather than in real life. Sometimes it’s a life-and-death thing.”
By training to handle tough situations, a simulator will ideally leave an ROV pilot better equipped to respond to such events. Doing the job right for one mission also opens doors to further business opportunities for GRI, as Dodd puts it.
“Creating the missions in the way those companies need them, gradually the number of customers you have and the projects you do for them grows over time if they’re finding it successful,” he said.
GRI’s work for big companies has proven useful when it comes to breaking into new markets. As Dodd explains, people within a company who have worked with GRI in the past often move to other international offices to help with other operations.
“Sometimes it’s people we’ve worked with on projects in Houston, and now they turn up in the Persian Gulf — it could be anywhere — and on any given day we could be speaking with someone in Brazil, China, Houston, Norway, England, Indonesia or something. To sit down and think about it, things have certainly changed over the years.”