First Funding – Early Support
Early Support and Encouragement
The funding for these early inspection robots was provided by the TVA and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Between 1999 and 2006, Drs. Canfield and Beard developed and tested a wide variety of inspection robot prototypes. They were helped by numerous TennTech students including Matt Stefanick and Neil White.
Working with TVA and EPRI, Drs. Canfield and Beard and TennTech students built a number of mobile climbing robots. The designs were starting to resemble small tractors. Their caterpillar feet were made of magnets instead of plastics. Their tool attachments were transducers not bush hogs. They were becoming “inspection tractors.”
The TennTech team would bring these “tractors” to TVA facilities to test. Many of these tests were performed in giant tanks used at coal fired power plants. Field tests presented a number of challenges including:
· Debris caked surfaces,
· Uneven surfaces,
· Curved surfaces,
· Protruding or attached surface obstructions,
· Wet surfaces,
· Painted surfaces (clients did not want surface scratched),
· Hot surfaces,
· Clod surfaces,
· Hard to access areas
Along the way some of TennTech’s most promising engineering students helped address these challenges. They included: Andrew Bryant, Justin Stacy, Tristan Hill and Aaron O’Toole. Mr. Bryant stayed on with the team and eventually joined RTT.
Both the TVA and EPRI were encouraging of the progress being made. From their perspective, finding ways to perform inspections in dangerous environments was a high priority. All utilities face massive health costs related to injuries and unhealthy environmental conditions. It didn’t hurt that automation enhanced inspections took less time, acquired more measurements and eliminated expensive set up costs (scaffolding, climbing gear, etc.).
As the team began writing up reports and presenting results from these early activities, interest in the tractor platform grew. Calls started to come in from people in industries unrelated to utilities. Organizations were calling and asking if the tractor platform might be able to support welding, painting, coating, cutting and medical challenges.
One of the calls received about the tractor capabilities came from the Edison Welding Institute (EWI). EWI develops and applies manufacturing technology innovation within the manufacturing industry. EWI was working with the Navy Joining Center and several large shipbuilders to determine if automated welding systems could replace manual welding techniques. After vetting RTT’s capabilities and technology, EWI asked RTT to join in a Navy project involving construction techniques on a new class of navy destroyer – the DDG-1000.
It was clear that the tractor platform was resonating with people seeking industrial solutions. However, it was also clear that the challenges encountered in the field related to inspections were becoming difficult to solve, especially for students and part-time workers. It was clear to Drs. Beard and Canfield that they would need to start a company to address and resolve these challenges.