Behind the systems on Air Canada's in-flight entertainment, the Canadian Army's command-and-control, and the Canadian Coast Guard's on-board electronics, is Thales Canada. The global supplier of electronic transportation solutions collects data that help clients ensure the smooth operation of any scenario, whether it's in the air, on the ground or at sea. For example, in a war zone, the army's command-and-control system tracks the locations of troops, vehicles, and equipment, putting information at leaders' fingertips to help them make critical, time-sensitive decisions.

But the biggest part of Thales Canada's business is building systems for subways and rail lines worldwide. Solutions include automating vehicle movement using technology such as the game-changing SelTrac™ CBTC – digital signalling and train controls. First applied in the Vancouver, British Columbia SkyTrain and Ontario's Scarborough RT, SelTrac is now being exported around the globe.

Vancouver driverless Skytrain on the evergreen line extension
Vancouver driverless Skytrain on the evergreen line extension

Technological advancements lead to real efficiencies

Lidar (laser-based radar systems) allows automated development of site data and surveys that have been costly and labour-intensive.
Lidar (laser-based radar systems) allows automated development of site data and surveys that have been costly and labour-intensive.

Among the company's innovations are green communications-based train control (CBTC) that reduces operation energy consumption by more than 15%. According to Mark Shorey, Thales Canada's director of business strategy for Transportation, energy-saving tactics include allowing trains to coast when possible, and aligning arrivals and departures to reuse braking energy. "For productivity enhancements, we are using Lidar (laser-based radar systems) to automate the development of site data and surveys that have been costly and labour-intensive."

Shorey adds that the company's foray into big data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) will generate possibilities far beyond traditional signalling or train-control functions. "These can be used to make smarter decisions not only about train operation, but also passenger service and safety." Another advantage of these new technologies is that they can be applied across the domains in which the company works, whether ground or air transportation, defence or cybersecurity.

Ontario partnership gains traction

In 2015, the Toronto transportation unit was awarded development contracts for Doha (Qatar), London and Hong Kong totalling $1.2 billion. "An order of such magnitude provides us with stability to strategize for the future, invest in R&D and maintain and grow our head count," says Mark Halinaty, Thales Canada's president and CEO. "And because we use local suppliers and businesses, it also boosts revenues for them." Thales Canada purchases from Ontario suppliers amounted to $68.5 million in 2016.

Of the company's 1,800 staff across Canada, 1,250 work in Toronto and 200 work in Ottawa providing support for various arms of the Department of National Defence (DND). A recently awarded 35-year DND contract is expected to generate 60 new positions in the short term.

Most jobs are held by highly skilled software developers and systems engineers who travel around the world to install the products built in Toronto. "Fortunately, one of our strengths in Ontario is diversity, which not only brings different ideas to the table, but also helps us overcome recruitment challenges if we need to do international installations," explains Halinaty. "To complete a job in Mecca, Saudi Arabia for example, were able to send a contingent of culturally familiar staff." The Ontario government has also helped Thales bring in key immigrants with the specialized skills required to deliver the company's complex products.

He reports that Thales Canada has received provincial support on some trade barrier issues as well as help in promoting its technology during trade missions to Hong Kong and South Korea.

Laying track for the future in Ontario

The largest infrastructure program in Ontario's history is now under way, with planned investment of more than $160 billion over 12 years. Thales Canada's goal is to become a key player in that expansion by augmenting its conventional transportation offerings with forward-thinking productivity upgrades and technology.

Staying competitive and remaining in a leadership position not only in Ontario but also the world means investing heavily in R&D and people. As Halinaty points out, Thales Canada is among the top 100 R&D investors in Canada, and is a gold sponsor of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence. The Toronto facility is also the transportation Centre of Competence for all of France-based Thales Group.

Thales' naval lab in Ottawa
Thales' naval lab in Ottawa
"Even though we are foreign-owned, we consider ourselves a real Canadian company," he concludes. "This means we are constantly putting funds and resources back into the country, and that's what continues to strengthen our partnership with Ontario."

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