L-3 WESCAM of Burlington, Ontario, Canada designs and manufactures imaging equipment, primarily for aircraft surveillance. Founded in 1974, the firm is a standalone division of parent company L-3, based in New York City. In October 2016, L-3 WESCAM launched the MX-8, a lightweight electro-optical/infrared airborne imaging system for small airplanes, helicopters and drones.
Q. What is the history of L-3 WESCAM?
A. Our technology originated in Canadian defence R&D labs post-World War II. The key technology is gyro-stabilized high quality imaging systems for surveillance. Therefore, you can have a camera or infrared/thermal camera system fully stabilized on moving platforms such as airplanes, boats and land vehicles. That stability, combined with highly accurate lenses, allows you to see things a great distance away. The technology was originally spun out of Westinghouse in Hamilton, Ontario.. It was then spun out into a company called ISTEC and eventually WESCAM.
Over time, the company needed to expand. Our current site is excellent. We’re sitting on elevated ground and have a long-range line of sight over Lake Ontario so we can test our equipment without urban development getting in the way.
We do high-end, high quality manufacturing. Our main factory in Burlington has about 700 people and we have another 100 or so in our Don Mills location. We do tens of millions of dollars a year in business with Ontario-based suppliers and manufacturers while exporting to over 65 countries.
Q. Who is the MX-8 sold to?
A. We sell directly to the military, but often we’ll sell to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers). When they build or configure their aircraft, boat or land vehicle, they’ll integrate our surveillance system into it. When it’s sold, it will then go to a military customer. There’s also significant business for us in the homeland security, airborne law enforcement disaster-response surveillance, and search-and-rescue markets.
Q. Does L-3 WESCAM collaborate with outside partners?
A. We work with Mohawk College and McMaster University on academic research. We also offer a Bachelor of Technology program run in combination with Mohawk and McMaster. Their professors deliver courses on-site. It’s [free] for our employees.
We’re in discussions with some new innovation centres that might open in Burlington … [we want to] engage with the smaller startups.
Q. What are the advantages of being Ontario-based?
McMaster has strong engineering programs around optics and physics that are core to our technology. If you were to draw a circle around Burlington, within an hour’s drive [there is] the University of Waterloo, University of Toronto and a swath of community colleges with technology programs.
We’ve built a supply chain over the area. We have manufacturers who are responsive and cost competitive. It’s good for distribution, being in the Greater Toronto Area.
This interview has been edited and condensed.