- Posted September 18, 2012 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Local Brothers Build Robots, Business
The Oregon Observer 9/16/12 Edition
Unified Newspaper Group
Several years ago, Bruce Schlee was listening to a friend complain about how long it took to remove a blade on a wind turbine for painting.
That gave him an idea.
So he called his brother, Keith, with that “crazy idea,” he recalled.
Keith is an aerospace engineer who has worked with NASA in the past. He could see the idea. So he flew down from Washington, D.C., and the brothers spent the weekend mulling it over.
They would go on to launch a new company, Helical Robotics, in May 2010, and spend the next two years designing and developing prototypes for a remote-controlled robot that can move up, down or around the stem of a wind turbine and carry anything from cameras or tools to robotic arms on a platform. The machines can tackle tasks such as checking a turbine tower for corrosion.
After several years and several thousand man-hours, the Oregon-based company, in a sense, went public this summer. In June, it attended the Windpower 2012 Conference and Exhibition, the world’s largest annual wind energy event put on by the American Wind Energy Association, and presented its newest robot. Now it is poised to build its business.
“There’s not a machine like this anywhere in the world,” Bruce said.
“Think of this as a rolling chassis,” Keith said in an interview earlier this week at the Helical Robotics manufacturing facility on North Burr Oak.
The brothers’ machine is a mobile platform; the robot uses magnets to adhere to the tower of the wind turbine – or any metal surface – without the magnets actually touching the metal surface. Its wheels carry it around and allow it to move in any direction.
It’s a device that the brothers said can save companies time and money and spare them from having to send workers climbing up – and repelling down – 300-foot wind turbines to inspect the turbine for, say, signs of corrosion or fractures.
Sending workers several hundred feet in the air might is not an option in bad weather or high winds. Then there is the cost, liability and risk of sending them up at all.
“A machine like this doesn’t really care about wind,” Bruce said.
Their robots also could lessen the need and attendant cost of the giant cranes needed for tasks such as removing wind blades for painting.
A camera, for example, could be mounted to the platform and allow someone off-site to check for wind corrosion or to inspect welding jobs in real-time. A robotic arm could be attached to the platform and perhaps paint a turbine blade or even do some welding.
“It’s literally a mountain,” said Keith, referring to the robotic unit scaling the turbine. “You’re beating gravity.”
Bruce sees applications beyond just wind turbines – pipelines, bridges, cell phone towers, and electric poles among them. He talked about a scenario where a platform could inspect work on the hull of a ship or the inside of a pipeline. They plan to have a robot that can cling to non-metallic surfaces, too.
“The applications are vast,” Bruce said.
Men behind machine
Bruce said he has had several careers. He originally wanted to fly airplanes. He ended up with four-year degrees in aviation science and business administration. Originally from Pentwater, Mich., Bruce has lived in Oregon now for almost 10 years. His wife works for Epic, the Verona-based electronic medical record giant. Bruce has worked for a manufacturing company and been in mergers and acquisitions for large corporations before. He’s started businesses before, too; his first was a retail store.
His brother, he said, is the “engineer.”
Keith has both undergraduate and graduate degrees in aerospace engineering from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He has worked with NASA engineers and supported NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center in a variety of assignments. He was first introduced to robotics in 2002.
“I just thought it was really cool,” he said.
When his brother called him several years ago with his idea, Keith said he “saw it pretty quick.”
After developing their prototypes and learning about the patent process, the brothers in May 2011 first presented one prototype at the wind energy association show. At this year’s show, they presented their latest model.
“You have to be, right?” Keith said, smiling, when asked if they were nervous about the convention. “We’re confident in the technology though.”
The brothers said a total of 11,000 people passed through their booth – including a sizable contingent from General Electric Co., the wind energy titan. They were impressed, Bruce said.
That same month, GE announced that it had been testing its own robotic device over the last year. Unlike the Schlees’ machine, however, the GE robot uses a vacuum pump that allows it to adhere to the turbine as it moves via tank-like treads. The brothers said the GE robot can crawl on the rotor blade itself; theirs can carry more weight.
The Schlee brothers still took heart from GE’s robot; it validated the market, Bruce said.
“It kind of legitimizes us,” Keith said.
The reception at the show was encouraging for “seven guys from a small-time startup company in Oregon, Wisconsin,” Bruce said.
In addition to Bruce and Keith – the president/CEO and vice president of engineering and design, respectively – the company has five employees.
Bruce said Helical has since reached out to companies, in some cases by making cold calls, to present what their machine can offer.
“We have a lot of meetings upcoming,” Bruce said.
One reason this could be a growing market is the loss of federal stimulus dollars to support wind energy. That means those that already have turbines will look more into maintaining them, rather than buying new ones, Bruce said.
Operations and maintenance can account for a good chunk of wind energy costs. The European Wind Energy Association, for example, estimates that operation and maintenance costs can comprise between 20 and 25 percent of the total cost of a turbine over its lifetime, for everything from insurance to repairs to spare parts to administration.
As for launching a new start-up, Bruce said he does not feel any anxiety. It helps, he said, to have had start-ups before. The hard part is the waiting for how it will all unfold.
“I’m not a very patient person at all,” Bruce said.