A remote-controlled, tank-like robot has made the transition from prop to product thanks to some customers of Advanced Resource Development Corp. of Columbia, Md.
The company was researching panel displays for remote-controlled devices in 1980. Not having such a device to work with, ARD designed one for the experiment. Clients took a liking to the small robot and told Advanced Resource staffers how their companies could use it to carry television cameras and other sensing and recording devices into dangerous environments such as nuclear power and chemical plants.
Thus was born the Industrial Remote Inspection System, or IRIS Surveyor, a remote-controlled, battery-powered surveillance/inspection robot that is 4 feet long, 14 inches high and weighs 350 pounds.
The Surveyor generated a new company, Automated Technology Corp., which began operations last June in the same location as Advanced Resource. Eugene B. Silverman is president of both companies. He holds 58 percent of Advanced Resource's stock, and other employes hold the balance.
Advanced Resource, in turn, holds 38 percent of ATC, and Silverman, ATC Vice President and General Manager Richard K. Simmons and a Fortune 200 conglomerate, which they won't identify, hold almost all of the rest of the stock. The parent company is 5 years old and has a staff of about 40 in Columbia, Chicago, New Orleans and Syracuse, N.Y.
Silverman described Advanced Resource as a service-oriented company that does concept development for electric utilities and manufacturing companies.
Among its main fields is telling companies the best way to position controls and displays.
"The rationale for having two companies is that I feel the type of people who work best in a service environment such as Advanced Resource are unlike those who work best in a manufacturing environment" such as ATC, Silverman said.
He explained that, if Advanced Resource discovers there is no hardware available to solve a client's problem, it will work with the client to develop the concept for such hardware and then turn implementation over to ATC.
Some employes end up doing work for both Advanced Resource and ATC, and Silverman said this is why there's a high likelihood that the companies will merge in the near future.
Silverman and Simmons believe that, although other companies have remote-controlled robots, theirs is the first that is not tethered to a work station, that has three-dimensional vision, binaural hearing and sensing devices, and can perform many tasks. Its tank-like treads permit it to roll right up stairways.
The robot is controlled by an operator seated at a control station that gives the operator a three-dimensional view of whatever the robot's zoom-lens television camera picks up. The camera is mounted on an arm so it can be aimed in any direction, and even can inspect the Surveyor itself. The camera permits the operator to see where to steer the robot and to inspect the surrounding area, including gauges, dials and other equipment. The Surveyor transmits constant data on radiation, temperature and relative humidity. It also can be outfitted with a 15-foot telescoping arm and with a smear sampler invented by Silverman and Simmons. They also invented the three-dimensional viewer. Depending on how the Surveyor is equipped, the price of the robot and control station varies from $150,000 to $200,000.
The preproduction prototype of the Surveyor is now at the Electric Power Research Institute in Charlotte, N.C., for testing and evaluation for use in nuclear power plants. Another natural market for the robot would be chemical plants. The third main segment of the potential market is hazardous-waste handling. Also possible is security service: Imagine Surveyor rolling along through plants, warehouses and the like, probing with infrared cameras into darkened corners.
In all, ATC executives consider the potential market for the Surveyor so large that they feel they could prosper with even just a small part of it.
"We're not touting that we're pushing the state of the art," because Surveyor consists of commercially available devices, Simmons said. But ATC has filed for a design patent on the Surveyor, and for patents on the smear sampler and the three-dimensional viewing system. The smear sampler and viewing system can be purchased separately for other uses.
ATC is gearing up for the start of production of the Surveyor by area subcontractors, and plans to make its initial delivery in August. The company expects to produce about 12 units this year and up to 50 next year.
Advanced Resource expects to post a profit of about $300,000 on $3 million in revenue for its fiscal year ending this June, and Silverman estimates that revenue for the next fiscal year will increase by at least 25 percent, while profits will show only a 10 percent gain because the company will reinvest profits.