ANDROS Does the Dirty Work
With its videocameras swiveling and its gripper arm reaching out, the robot called "ANDROS" looks like an aluminum praying mantis. To SWAT teams, bomb squads, and hazardous materials handlers, it's beautiful.
ANDROS can clean up chemical spills, open and close high-pressure valves, inspect packages suspected to contain explosives, and even confront armed criminals. It's manufactured by REMOTEC, Inc., a small firm in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, now a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman. REMOTEC's customers include the U.S. military, law enforcement agencies, and other organizations all around the world that seek to minimize exposure of human personnel to hazardous operations or materials.
REMOTEC is one of more than a dozen companies, almost all high tech, located in Valley Industrial Park, whose opening was assisted by an Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) grant for installing water and sewer services. The firm's history illustrates how undramatic investments in economic development can lead to dramatic long-term payoffs. It's also part of an ongoing story of how a community, and now a large multicounty area, prepared and continues to prepare for fundamental economic change.
"Twenty-five years ago there was virtually no private business in Oak Ridge," says Marshall E. Myer, director of small business services for the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce. Valley Industrial Park started a change in the economic viability of the community. It's been wildly successful.
The entire city of Oak Ridge was created in World War II to conduct the "Manhattan Project," which built the first atomic weapons. Throughout the Cold War, it functioned as America's principal research and development site for nuclear weapons technology. Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and related organizations affiliated with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have always been Oak Ridge's only large employers.
Valley Industrial Park, opened in the early 1980s, represented a strategy by Oak Ridge leaders to reduce this almost total dependence on federal payrolls. REMOTEC had been incorporated in 1979, but its manufacturing business could not really get off the ground until 1982, when its three founding partners bought nine acres of land in Valley Industrial Park.
REMOTEC was one of the park's first occupants and one of the first private-sector spin-offs from ORNL. It was founded by three ORNL engineers: John White, now retired; Kenneth Walker, now again employed at ORNL; and Howard Harvey, now REMOTEC's vice president of operations. The three men had worked on nuclear fuel recycling problems within a program to develop a breeder reactor, a type of nuclear reactor that would produce more fissile materials than it would consume. They had designed devices to enable human operators to handle "hot" materials while shielded from radiation by concrete walls as much as four feet thick. Then, in the late 1970s, word came that the breeder reactor program would be phased out.
"Obviously, if you don't have a breeder reactor, you don't need a recycling program," Harvey says. "We didn't want to push paper; we wanted to do hardware. Our basic goal was to show people how to handle things remotely. After some initial efforts with robotic arms, we gravitated toward bomb squad work."
Business Takes a New Turn
Once in Valley Industrial Park, REMOTEC built manufacturing facilities that enabled it to fulfill its first order—for two remote-controlled handlers. The order came not from a nuclear power plant but from the FBI, and the business took a new turn. REMOTEC has since emerged as a world leader—arguably the world leader—in robotics applied to hazardous-materials and law-enforcement operations.
Today REMOTEC, its original facilities expanded, employs from 40 to 80 people, depending on the status of orders. It makes six models of its ANDROS product line, each configurable for a host of special functions. The largest, designed for military operations, is roughly the size of a home garden tractor. Most models can crawl up and down stairs. The smallest, about the size of a picnic cooler, can fit into a car trunk. Rolling up and down airplane aisles, it can remove suspicious objects from under seats or from overhead compartments.
Prices for ANDROS vary, depending on configuration. James E. Rambo, REMOTEC president and CEO, says: "You can equip a police department for below $50,000."
Strictly speaking, the ANDROS models are not true robots because they remain under the direct control of a human operator, via either radio signals or fiber-optic cable. The operator sees and hears what ANDROS "sees" and "hears" on interactive video and directs ANDROS's physical operations. The operator can also, as needed, speak through ANDROS.
"Everything we get into is an unstructured environment," says Harvey. "You need something that can actually think. That's why you want a human operator in the loop. I tell the schoolkids who tour our plant, 'Our robots are really dumb machines.' "
Dumb or not, ANDROS has compiled a remarkable list of success stories: for a Los Angeles bomb squad, safely opening a booby-trapped package whose explosion might otherwise have killed a human; in New York City, helping two hostages escape from an apartment where they were being held; and, in a Pacific Northwest city, performing one of police work's most hazardous functions—approaching a parked car whose occupant is feared to be armed.
One especially important payoff from investments in high-tech firms is their ability to penetrate export markets. That's certainly true for REMOTEC: Rambo says REMOTEC now sells its robots in 26 countries.
Valley Industrial Park also contains a business incubator, constructed with the help of an ARC grant, that currently provides facilities for four tenants. Twelve more firms have "graduated" from the incubator. One graduate, Vacuum Technology, Inc., manufactures vacuum systems and equipment that analyzes the composition of gases in industrial processes. The firm now employs about 40 people and is growing steadily.
Committed to Transition
These successes are part of a continuing effort. Spread out along a ridge within sight of REMOTEC is a newer set of buildings. They house firms that represent part of Oak Ridge's commitment to make a transition from an economy still heavily dependent on government spending to a diversified economy based on private firms in open-market competition. The current perspective goes far beyond the immediate environs of Oak Ridge, however.
"It's not the town; it's the region," says Thomas C. Rogers, president and CEO of Technology 2020, a nonprofit public-private partnership committed to economic development through increased use of information technology. "People commute here every day from 38 counties."
Soberly, Rogers mentions the region's "billion-dollar challenge"—a potential loss of approximately 7,000 jobs over the next decade as the DOE downsizes its nuclear-related facilities. In the next breath, he describes initiatives to connect "the valley"—referring to a 15-county area around Knoxville-Oak Ridge known as "Tennessee's Resource Valley" that may expand to include all of eastern Tennessee from Chattanooga to the Tri-Cities area (Kingsport, Johnson City, and Bristol). ARC is assisting Technology 2020's effort to upgrade the telecommunications capabilities of economic development field offices through the Appalachian counties.
"We've begun to receive a great deal of attention from information technology entrepreneurs, both in the region and throughout the nation," Rogers says. "I get three or four calls a week. One guy is doing DNA sequencing. Another guy is doing kinesiology analysis. One of the commercial products may be a golf swing analyzer."
That's a reminder that the specific outcomes of these newer investments are as unforeseeable as the transition from conducting breeder reactor research to creating SWAT team equipment. Just as the officers who control ANDROS never know what lurks around the next corner, the public and private partners whose decisions today are shaping the economic future of eastern Tennessee cannot know the exact shape of the future. But, like REMOTEC's customers, they're equipping themselves with an impressive combination of technology and brain power. Their goal is to be ready for just about anything, and the area's track record augurs well for their success.
Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.