York company, Virginia Tech partner to build flying robot
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
YORK, Va. — A soccer-ball sized flying robot could become the go-to technology for performing inspections of Navy ship tanks.
York County-based aeronautics company AVID (Air Vehicle Integrated Design) LLC has partnered with Virginia Tech to make that technology a reality. The company has already built a flying prototype that is ready for testing.
Virginia Tech received funding for the project from the Naval Engineering Education Center through the Naval Sea Systems Command to develop a robotic device that can perform ballast and fuel tank inspections on Navy ships.
Jon Greene, director for National Security and Program Development at Virginia Tech's Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, said the education center is providing $180,000 a year to fund the project which began last year.
Greene said the Navy has a "large problem" with corrosion of tanks and spends billions of dollars a year in performing the inspections which involves opening the tanks and making them safe for people to enter, assess and repair. The goal of the project is to find a more efficient and cost effective way to perform the inspections.
A team of undergraduate and graduate students at Tech led by professor Dan Stilwell are developing censors to help with the robot's navigation system which will be paired with AVID's vehicle prototype.
"These tanks are often like mazes and the device has to be able to fly through serpentine paths and through openings in these tanks," Greene said.
Ron Murray, Newport News Shipbuilding vice president of Quality and Process Excellence, said there are "many challenges associated with shipboard tank inspections." Murray said the tanks have limited entry access and can be difficult to move around in. Temporary ventilation and lighting systems must be installed to provide adequate oxygen and visibility for inspectors.
Paul Gelhausen, chief technical officer for AVID, said the vehicle design had to be small enough to fit inside the tank and powerful enough to carry about a pound of weight, mainly for a video camera to allow for remote inspections. Gelhausen said the vehicle also has to be capable of vertical takeoff and hovering flight.
The development of this vehicle could have big implications for AVID as the company moves forward with a new business plan to expand into the private sector.
'A big market'
AVID formed as a small venture between Gelhausen and a Virginia Tech professor in 2002 as a side business based in Blacksburg. The company's initial focus was on developing computer software for aircraft design analysis. At the time Gelhausen was working for NASA Langley and AVID was going to be a part-time job.
"It grew from doing a little software and analysis to building vehicles," he said.
Gelhausen soon left NASA after a 22-year career to focus on AVID. In 2006 Gelhausen, who lives in York County, assumed full ownership of the company and moved the headquarters to York County between Fort Eustis and Denbigh boulevards. AVID maintains an office in Blacksburg.
AVID has worked with some of the biggest names in aeronautics including Boeing and Honeywell. The company also worked with Honeywell to develop components for a surveillance drone called the T-HawkTM, which was deployed with troops in Iraq in 2005 and Afghanistan in 2007.
The design process AVID used to create the T-Hawk led to the development of a prototype vehicle designed by a group of interns at the company. Gelhausen said the project was meant to be a teaching exercise but turned into a viable product.
What came out of the two-year project was a marketable design for a football-sized aerial vehicle dubbed the iMAV (intern micro aerial vehicle) that offers hovering capabilities as well as agility.
Gelhausen said the iMAV gave AVID a prototype it can market to potential customers rather than solely creating designs for other companies. The iMAV design is the basis for the vehicle AVID is using for the project with Virginia Tech.
"We wanted to have something we could point to," he said. "I still see a big market for this type of vehicle."
Greene said one of the missions of Virginia Tech is outreach and assisting in the economic development of new technology. He said the concept of a small flying robot could be useful in a variety of fields including law enforcement and disaster relief.
"The ability to team with a small company that is based in Virginia is particularly attractive to us," he said of working with AVID.
"The university ought to be involved in developing technology to solve those hard problems, and teaming with small business, big business and government to get those capabilities in the market place is a good thing for everyone concerned," Greene said.
Gelhausen is hopeful the technology will have a broad appeal in the marketplace. Government contracts are drying up or being delayed and Gelhausen is looking to expand his business into the private sector.
Earlier this year the Hampton Roads Partnership awarded the company a $4,500 grant from its Innovate! Hampton Roads Economic Gardening Network program to research potential customers for technology like the iMAV. The grant covers the cost of a strategic marketing team that performs an intensive study to identify growth opportunities.
Rick Lally, director of Innovate! Hampton Roads, said a big part of the economy for tech companies in Hampton Roads is fueled by federal contracts. The Economic Gardening Program can be especially helpful in transitioning those companies into the private sector.
"We want to help them grow sooner in directions that help diversify them from such a high reliance on federal dollars," he said.
Gelhausen said the marketing team just recently completed its study for AVID which revealed a number of private sector applications for the iMAV design including the use of an aerial device for wind turbine inspections.
"I think the technology has a lot of applications for doing inspections and reducing costs," he said. "It can help improve jobs that need to be done better."
The next step for the robotic project for the Navy is to begin testing and refining the device. Gelhausen said that process will include merging AVID's vehicle with Virginia Tech's navigation system and conducting test flights.
The ultimate goal for AVID is to demonstrate the capability and value of the vehicle as a viable product for both the Navy and private sector.
"The goal would be to do some funded projects for the Navy," Gelhausen said.
The vehicle could have a big impact locally with the large number of inspections that take place at Navy installations in Norfolk and at the Newport News Shipyard.
"We're hoping at the end of the project we come up with a prototype that will be available for the Navy or ship builders like Newport News Shipbuilding and ship repair facilities," Greene said.