One of the most challenging aspects of working in the oil and gas in the North Sea is finding out exactly what’s going on beneath the waves. Step forward WFS Technologies.
The Livingston-based company uses radio waves to send signals through the water. Radio waves have both an electric field and a magnetic field; while the magnetic part of the wave can travel through water more easily, WFS has developed techniques to optimise the transmission of the electrical part of the wave through water, enabling the radio wave to carry data such as a video of what’s going on at the bottom of the sea or temperature readings from along the length of an oil pipeline.
"Intellectual property (IP) is fundamental to what we do," explains Ruth Patterson, IP manager at WFS. "To be able to get into the manufacturing phase, it helps to have ownership of the IP that you created. Throughout the research and development (R&D) process, an eye has been kept on making sure that new innovations are captured as they come about and – if they are of enduring value – then protected.
"We have some core patents that cover all of our products and we’re filing further patents to protect the continuing development work. WFS has applied for more than 200 patents in jurisdictions around the world and has been granted around 75. Part of Patterson’s job is to make sure that WFS is being canny about which inventions and innovations it protects and which ones it chooses to share with the wider world.
"As we’ve become more mature as a company, we’ve also become more diligent at abandoning the IP that isn’t of value, otherwise it can become very expensive to protect everything," says Patterson.
"While we have a very active policy of pursuing protection, we also have an active policy of ditching the unnecessary to try and keep a main portfolio that does actually reflect the company, what it does and where it is going. We have to be quite ruthless about what we look after and what we don’t and where we invest the money and where we don’t."
In addition to the patent portfolio, WFS is utilising trademarks to help build brand value around the subsea radio technology developed. The key trademark, Seatooth, represents the technology enabling transmission of data wirelessly through fluid. As well as protecting its own IP, WFS also set up the Subsea Wireless Group to promote communication systems that operate underwater to the oil and gas industry and to develop open industry standards so that devices made by one manufacturer can talk to products made by rival companies.
Conventional wisdom had accepted that radio waves couldn’t be sent through the water and so the company has spent time educating the market about its low-frequency radio waves.
The business was founded in 2003 by Brendan Hyland and, after initially working on a contract with BAE Systems on data communications for aircraft, WFS began investigating underwater radio in 2004.
The BAE contract had been a success, but WFS hadn’t owned the IP and so Hyland wanted to explore other fields. Hyland and his team weren’t the first people to consider the problem. "Good, reliable data is an expensive thing to obtain in the oil industry," explains Patterson.
"As a result, a lot of the assets involved in oil operations work blind – once you put it down, you don’t have a massive amount of information about how it was operating. So there is an obvious need for a solution to give more reliable and robust data in an effective manner.
"WFS’s Seatooth product enables higher-quality and higher-content data to be transmitted over short, medium and long distances. You can set up a network of sensors and you don’t need cables connecting each of the sensors to the surface. WFS launched the world’s first commercial underwater radio modem in 2006 and today its devices are used by oil and gas companies in the UK and North America, as well as customers in Africa, Australia and Japan. The company has grown to employ around 20 staff and now has an office in Houston, Texas.
Earlier this year  WFS took over a site at the Inspire Business Centre in Belfast to open a manufacturing facility and customer support centre, where it expects to create up to 15 jobs.
Bill Strahan was appointed as vice president of operations and general manager of the business in Northern Ireland. WFS isn’t Hyland’s first technology company; in 1998 he founded Livingston-based electronics company Kymata, which attracted backing from BT, IBM and Kleiner, Perkins Caufield & Byers before being bought in 2001 by French group Alcatel.
Back at WFS, Patterson says: "It’s been a very intense R&D process and also a very innovative one. The guys in the company are hugely innovative and approach complex problems with some really quite fabulous ideas about how to solve them. And that makes my job really interesting as well. It’s a job that I love – working with innovations, you never know what you’re going to get. It really is a new thing every day and it’s very inspiring."
Patterson joined WFS as its IP manager in 2011 following a career that has seen her work with IP in a wide variety of guises. She started out as a patent examiner at the UK Intellectual Property Office before moving into private practice, working for patent attorney firm Marks & Clerk in Glasgow.
Later she joined Scottish Health Innovations (SHI), "I enjoy working in-house at WFS because I am doing the day-to-day patent work – making sure the patents are drafted and filed – but at the same time I’m also helping to commercialise the patents," Patterson says. "We’re actually using the patents rather than just protecting them."
Companies that have used WFS’s equipment have included I-Tech, a division of engineering firm Subsea 7, which used the Seatooth Video wireless subsea camera as part of a maintenance project in the North Rankin field off the north coast of Australia on behalf of oil and gas operator Woodside. The wireless camera was mounted to an ROV, which didn’t need to have a data cable attached, removing the risk of snagging.
Meanwhile, Baker Hughes used a Seatooth system to collect data during a pipeline pre-commissioning project In the Liwan 3-1 gas field in the South China Sea at a depth of 1,000m. Next year  the Japanese Agency for Marine-Earth Science & Technology (JAMSTEC) is due to use a Seatooth device at depths of 2,000m when it explores hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the sea.
It’s not just oil and gas companies that have been using the technology. Businesses operating in the defence and renewable energy sectors have also been using WFS’s devices, along with WaveJet, which made battery-powered motorised surfboards. The Scottish company’s sensors were used in a wireless device that turned off the engine if the surfer fell off their board.
WFS has also provided its expertise and technology to researchers at British universities including Edinburgh, Newcastle, Oxford and Strathclyde, and American institutions such as Georgia Tech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
"IP is an important part of developing a strong company from research. If you’re going to use R&D as your basis then protecting that IP makes you stronger," Patterson says. "Your product differentiators can be protected and that defines your market place as well.
"By entering the IP100, it gives us feedback on how our company is progressing in this area. It also shows other companies that there are advantages and value in protecting their IP and that you can manage your IP portfolio to protect the work that you’re doing and build strength."
Our BQ Bulletin emails will land in your inbox at 7.30am, Monday to Friday, with a mix of the latest local business news, national news, and features to inspire you. Sign up here!
Click here to read our privacy statement