YARMOUTH — Caleb Mason wants the technology industry to know Maine businesses produce more than just “jams and jellies.”

They also make cutting-edge navigation and mapping equipment, and outsiders are starting to take notice.

Earlier this month, Yarmouth-based mapping firm DeLorme won Popular Mechanics’ Breakthrough Award for a new handheld GPS that lets users send text messages from the world’s most remote regions.

The award, given to a handful of products and innovators that “moved society forward in 2010,” highlights the evolution of privately-held DeLorme from a paper mapmaker to a leading player in a high-tech field dominated by multinational firms.

“We surprised the industry with this product,” said Mason, DeLorme’s vice president. “We did it first.”

It’s hard to miss DeLorme’s headquarters in Yarmouth. In the glass-enclosed lobby – and clearly visible to drivers on nearby I-295 – is Eartha, a 41.5-foot rotating globe, the world’s largest.

Here DeLorme engineers designed the award-winning Earthmate PN-60w, a GPS that communicates wirelessly with a satellite messaging device from SPOT, a California company that also won the award.

PN-60w users can type and send text messages and update Facebook and Twitter via satellite instead of less-reliable cellular signals.

Satellite communication makes it possible to communicate from the most remote locations. Just last week, American climber Eric Larsen tweeted “Everest summit” on the top of Mount Everest from his PN-60w.

Mason said the award was a “coup for a tech company from Maine” and a testament to the work of DeLorme’s employees, some of whom worked hundreds of hours per week on the device, which has a suggested retail price of $549.95.

Although the PN-60w is its latest high-tech product, DeLorme is probably better known for its paper products. The company’s biggest seller is its “Atlas & Gazetteer” series, detailed maps of all U.S. states that have sold 25 million copies since the company was founded in 1976.

Mason wouldn’t disclose DeLorme’s financials, but he said the company’s income has flattened in recent years as a result of the recession. The firm is privately owned and has 110 employees.

Research firm LexisNexis reports the company had roughly $46 million in sales in 2007, significantly less than competitors like Magellan maker MiTAC and Garmin, which have thousands of employees and billions in revenue.

CEO David DeLorme launched the firm by publishing state-specific topographic maps and atlases targeted to outdoor enthusiasts. The firm’s atlases include summaries of states’ beaches, nature preserves, parks, campgrounds and waterfalls.

In the mid-1980s, the company began experimenting with electronic maps on CD-ROMs. Government contract work followed. In 1991, DeLorme released Street Atlas USA, a product the company says was the first consumer CD-ROM map product. And in 1995, DeLorme released a GPS receiver for laptop computers.

But the map industry was in flux. Soon, maps were available on the Internet and the market for paper maps came “crashing down,” Mason said. Next, the in-vehicle GPS market exploded.

That prompted DeLorme to shift its product line, and the company focused on making high-end handheld GPS devices for outdoors enthusiasts.

Handheld GPS devices, not much bigger than a deck of cards, had been available to consumers since the late 1980s. In the early days, the units displayed little more than rudimentary navigation data on a black screen.

DeLorme’s GPS would be different.

In 2007, DeLorme released its Earthmate PN-20 handheld GPS, which let users view their position on electronic topographic maps – digital versions of the paper maps back country hikers, hunters, rock climbers and mountain bikers relied on for years. Topographic maps display physical contours, including rivers, mountains, trails and roads.

The PN-20 also displayed aerial photographs.

“They were the first to put it together. That’s what they became known for,” said Timothy Flight, an industry observer and editor of product review web site GPSreview.net.

Rich Owings, who reviews GPS devices on his web site, GPStracklog.com, said with the PN-20 DeLorme began “driving” the market for back country handheld GPS units. Their success pushed other manufacturers to build competing products.

In 2008, during the middle of an the economic recession, DeLorme launched it’s next generation PN-40, a faster GPS with more-detailed maps.

Mason said that although margins were under pressure at the time, DeLorme doubled its sales in 2008. Much of that income came from sales of digital map products to government agencies and corporations, such as Exxon Mobil. He said 25 percent of the company’s business still comes from paper maps.

Mason said one challenge for DeLorme is finding employees in Maine who understand the “science and magic” that goes into tuning GPS devices.

The company does have a strong intern program with the University of Maine, and frequently hires former interns.

Still, Mason said “only a handful of people around the world” understand the technology. Therefore, DeLorme hires many staffers from out of state.

The company has been approached with opportunities to move operations outside the state, but has declined.

“It’s very important to have good jobs in Maine,” Mason said.

He added that the company’s remote location “forces us to be good at what we are doing.”

 

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or: [email protected]