Industry Pioneer Dr. James McFarlane Sr. International Submarine Engineering Ltd.

by Tom Peters

In October, 2011 Dr. James McFarlane Sr. was presented with the Diver Certification Board of Canada’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Prior to receiving that honor, Dr. McFarlane had received numerous awards over the years for his work in developing underwater manned and robotic vehicles and supporting equipment. But it was the comments made by David Parkes, the DCBC’s chief executive officer at the presentation, that gave a more defined picture of Dr. McFarlane than the award itself.
“Jim’s underwater-orientated technical contributions to Canada and the world are almost beyond compare. In just one field of underwater work, Jim has been part of engineering teams that have designed and built more than 400 robotic manipulators and over 200 vehicles,” Parkes said.
For the past 38 years or so for Dr. McFarlane it has been all about creating, designing and building underwater vehicles and support systems. He started his own company, International Submarine Engineering Ltd. (ISC), in 1974 to establish a presence in the underwater industry but even before that, during his 18-year stint in the Canadian Navy, he had been involved in building submarines. Knowingly or not, that work obviously charted the career path for this bright entrepreneur from Canada’s West Coast.
“On Nov 18, 1952, I joined the navy to see the world,” Dr. McFarlane said in a recent interview with MTR. He was sent to Nova Scotia for basic training at CFB Cornwallis and then to CFB Shearwater where he became a navy pilot and certified on the Grumman Avenger and the Hawker Sea Fury.
He chuckled as he referred to himself as “an ordinary seaman/naval airman standard.”
However, during his last years in the navy “I was building submarines in the Chatham Dockyard (on River Medway) in England. By that time I had gone to the University of New Brunswick and MIT in Cambridge (MA). I had already gotten a ticket for driving ships and I was an engineer as well, so I went to England as a constructor of the Oberon class submarines we had in the Canadian Navy for 35 years,” he said.
When he returned to Canada he was posted in Ottawa and his work with submarines continued which really set his future path.
“They (navy) were looking at ways of increasing the diving capability and there were discussions of manned subs at that time and there weren’t really any to speak of. I got involved with the acquisition of one here on the West Coast and I just got involved (in the industry). I left the navy after 18 years and started building manned subs. Then 38 years ago I started ISC to build tethered remotely operated vehicles (ROV) and then started autonomous vehicles (AUV) and all sorts of other kinds of contraptions,” he said.
Sandwiched between his retirement from the navy and the startup of ISE, Dr. McFarlane joined International Hydrodynamics as vice-president of engineering and operations. He had personal responsibility for the development, construction, trials and operations of the company’s submersibles, ancillary equipment and launch and recovery equipment.
Today, ISE and a sister company ISE Research, employ approximately 75 people. The company is based in Port Coquitlam, BC, and develops and builds ROVs, AUVs, manned submersibles, robotic manipulators, semi-submersibles, computer control systems and unmanned surface vessels.
The development of these various forms of underwater equipment and systems is relatively new in the world of industry. Dr. McFarlane, highly regarded around the globe for achievement and innovation in this fledgling business, basically got in on the ground floor. He is often recognized as a pioneer in this field.
However, he modestly doesn’t look at his career and achievements as groundbreaking.
“Well, when it’s ongoing it is hard to evaluate what’s going on. Things are moving right along and it is certainly an adventure,” he said. But the 78-year-old McFarlane does recognize the fact his company’s work has helped revolutionize underwater work and exploration.
“If we hadn’t done it, it would never have been done,” he says.
The company’s record speaks for itself. Over the nearly four decades the company has achieved many firsts. The first commercial ROV in the North Sea in 1976; the ROV TECH ends divers walking inspections of pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979; the first sub-sea blowout inspection on the Ixtoc-1 in 1979; the first semi-submersible autonomous underwater vehicle Dolphin in 1981 developed for military applications; the first AUV survey ever done in 1982 followed by the longest AUV mission under the ice with AUV, Thesus in 1998. 
The “adventure,” as he states, has put ISE at the forefront.
“We started the ROV business pretty well in the world really. We did the first job on the Piper Alpha pipeline (in the U.K.) 30 some years ago and from there I decided that there was going to be a market for autonomous vehicles. I conceived a couple of different kinds and we got money from the Canadian government for opportunities they foresaw as things they wanted to do,” he said.
The development the autonomous vehicles has proven invaluable especially in the Canadian Arctic.
ISE built two built two AUV for Defense Research and Development Canada which were used in collaboration with other federal departments such as National Defense and Fisheries and Oceans in the Arctic to gather data which will used in the establishment of Canada’s undersea boundaries in the North.
“It (collecting the date) it was something that could only have been done in Canada because nobody else had the tools to do it,” Dr. McFarlane said.
The two, cylindrical shaped AUVs built for the Arctic project were each about seven meters long and weighed around 2,000 kg. They had a propeller on the back and six small wings, four were located on the tail and two at the mid-point. These fins enabled the AUVs to fly through the water. They were powered by lithium ion batteries that could be recharged underwater and charge could last for missions as long as 350 – 400 kilometers.
Dave Hopkin, section head, Maritime Assest Protection, Research and Development Canada Atlantic, said in an interview, the two AUVs were invaluable in collecting data that could not have been done with an icebreaker or any other equipment in the Arctic environment. The work done by the AUVs under the ice was to investigate under ocean territory exceeding the 370 kilometers a country automatically gets as an exclusive economic zone.
Hopkin, who has worked on past projects with ISE, said ISE is unique in that they will work with a client to customize the equipment, which occurred in this case when the two AUVs were constructed. This equipment was also unique in that it was very portable. It was built in modules which allowed for it to be dismantaled for transportation purposes and then reassembled.
Dr. McFarlane sees the development of autonomous vehicles as the greatest advancement in the industry thus far.
“We have them down to 5,000 meters,” he said, depths where divers can’t go. Plus, he adds, “these tethered vehicles give you real time pictures and you are working as if you are there but you are unable to cover the kind of territory you can cover with autonomous vehicles.”
And, going forward, he says there is a strong future for the AUVs as the industry finds a greater diversity for their application.
“I think what’s going to happen is a greater diversity of platforms and greater diversity in the applications there of but I do seriously think the exploration of ocean floor for metals and methane is going to prove to be very major work,” he said.
“Methane can be used in automobiles and there are indications that it is all the way round the world so that has its charm. But I really don’t think we know all the possible applications yet,” he said. In an amusing anecdote concerning methane, Dr. McFarlane referred to country singer Wilf Carter, a native of Aulac, New Brunswick, who wrote a song during the Second World War that was called “When the Ice Worms Nest Again.”
“It was played a lot actually but about 10 years ago in the Gulf of Mexico they discovered worms on methane ice,” said Dr. McFarlane and with a hearty chuckle “we said we knew that in Canada years ago, Wilf Carter used to sing about it.”
Dr. McFarlane said his company’s business is expanding and becoming more international. China and Japan are now markets but noted some caution in dealings with China.
“We can sell stuff to them as long as it isn’t massed produced,” he said. But meanwhile ISE has completed construction of four autonomous vehicles for Japan “and we have got more underway and we have got one underway for China.” Dr. McFarlane noted a growing demand for underwater vehicles and equipment with a specific emphasis on equipment for deep water.
At 78 Dr. McFarlane, who is president of ISE, remains active in the daily workings of the company. There is an enthusiasm in his voice when he speaks of its accomplishments and what the future may hold, so it is highly unlikely this industry pioneer - whether he likes that label or not - is about to leave anytime soon.

(As published in the June 2013 edition of Marine Technologies -

Marine Technology Magazine, page 24,  Jun 2013

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