Early Field Testing – The Learning Curve
Noxious Gasses, Yellow Suits, 110 Degree Temperatures
Building and testing in laboratory environments is very different form operating machinery in the field. There are millions of ideas, prototypes, and models lying on University shelves all over the world. Of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on University research only a fraction results in societal benefits and even less results in a financial return to the University. That is not true in the RTT story. What makes our story different is that both Drs. Canfield and Beard are not your average researchers.
Drs. Canfield and Beard are farm boys. Both watched their fathers plan crops, break ground, lay off rows, till soil, operate farm equipment, harvest, store and sell. At least until they were six. Then they climbed on the tractors, helped harvest and stack hay and argued with their fathers about who should be driving the tractors.
By their teenage years both were maintaining and repairing farm equipment. At school they gravitated toward learning the science behind what made their tractors and other farm machinery work. This common background results in two uncommon business attributes: an affiliation for things that make “every day” work easier and a deep understanding that machines must work in challenging environments.
The TVA field inspections were on giant containment tanks where noxious gasses and residues collected. The tanks were filled with chemicals like sulfur dioxide and ammonia. Both are poisonous.
The tanks themselves were often huge, some more than a hundred feet in diameter and 60 feet high; bigger than the largest water towers you see from the sides of roads. Once emptied they often revealed cakey residue of reacted lime that had coagulated into large rock and boulder size clumps. It was other worldly, something imaginable on another planet or asteroid. The robots had to maneuver around these chunks. Even the cleanest tanks routinely had 50-100 mm of residue lining the walls.
The TVA would require anyone entering the tank to wear respirators and bright colored yellow plastic hazmat suits similar to the suits you might have seen in broadcasts of the cleanup of the Japanese Fukushima nuclear power plant. The suits were needed to protect the worker from the noxious substances. Inside these tanks, temperatures would rise to 110 degrees. This made workers susceptible to heat stroke from hyperthermia. Workers could last only 20 to 30 minutes on the hottest days, 90 to 120 minutes when the tanks were sufficiently cooled.
Into this Drs. Canfield and Beard walked and worked. They learned quickly that the robots had to be highly maneuverable; capable of traversing uneven surfaces; able to withstand fluctuations in temperature; and easy to use.
In some strange way they were once again kids on their father’s farm. Only this time they were tasked with tending some very unusual crops: some very dangerous crops.