Look, Mom: no hands

TORC Robotics in Blacksburg was a pioneer in the technology behind driverless cars

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Print this page by Joan Tupponce
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An unmanned vehicle carries an injured Marine.
Photo courtesy TORC Robotics LLC

Autonomous or driverless vehicles may be a new buzzword within the auto industry, but the technology behind those vehicles isn’t new to Michael Fleming, CEO of TORC Robotics LLC in Blacksburg. The company has been working with the technology since it opened its doors in 2007.

“The autonomous technology is not yet being used by consumers, but it is coming,” says Fleming. “ … It’s the same technology we are working on and have deployed.”

The year TORC opened, it partnered with Virginia Tech to compete in a challenge sponsored by the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Teams were tasked with developing a fully autonomous vehicle that had to travel 60 miles of urban and off-road environments in less than six hours. “We were competing with 89 teams from around the world,” Fleming recalls. “We were one of three teams [Carnegie Mellon and Stanford were the other two] that finished the challenge. That was our claim to fame.”

Since then the company has been working with the Department of Defense as well as the transportation and mining industries. Fifty percent of its revenue comes from defense projects. The remaining 50 percent is related to commercial customers. “We also work with agriculture, but we focus on the other three [defense, transportation and mining] sectors,” Fleming says.

Fleming was a graduate student in engineering when he started his company. He began with four partners, all Virginia Tech engineering professors and graduate students. The five had been working on a robotic project at Virginia Tech when they discovered that industries were interested in their technology. “We were working with technology that is decades out. They came and said ‘we would like to buy it,’” Fleming says. “I said,  ‘Let’s spin out a company.’”

The DoD has used the company’s technology in its military vehicles (humvees and mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles) in Iraq and Afghanistan. The mining industry is implementing the technology in open pit mines that already use autonomous excavators and haul trucks.

TORC has grown from five to 40 employees. It currently has three facilities in Blacksburg. The company continued its expansion in August by breaking ground on a new 20,000-square-foot robotics building that is scheduled to open next March. “We will be able to consolidate into one central facility,” Fleming says. The project is adjacent to the company’s 22-acre, off-road test site and Virginia Tech’s “Smart Road,” which is used for transportation testing. “It will serve as a training and demonstration facility. It will allow us to test our products and also allow customers to travel to us … It’s something we have needed for a while.”

TORC recruits employees from Virginia Tech and other institutions such as Carnegie Mellon, Cornell University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “Most of our employees have advanced degrees, masters and Ph.D.s,” Fleming says. “We are an engineer, technology-heavy company.”

He says the private company’s revenue has been on an upward swing, although Fleming doesn’t release figures. “Since 2010 we have grown 60 percent each year in revenue,” Fleming says.

International companies began showing interest in the technology for both defense and commercial applications in 2009 at a time when TORC had high demand from U.S. customers. “A lot of times when you are in rapid growth, it can be very painful, so it was important for us to be focused on our priorities,” Fleming says of the decision at that time to not focus on international markets. “We didn’t see as much demand on the international side.”

By  2012, though, that mindset changed because there was international demand, particularly in the military and defense sectors. “We became engaged with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. We have been working with them for several years now,” says Fleming.

International business currently accounts for less than 15 percent of overall revenue, “but we see it growing.” 

The company works with Australia and Singapore but also has customers in Europe. “We are now seeing a demand from South America. We also work with the Middle East through partners,” says Fleming.
He finds that customers in Singapore are aggressive in adopting new technology. “They are forward thinking,” he says. “They are very business savvy. I have a lot of respect for our customers there.”

It’s important to build relationships in Singapore. “That’s not always done in a conference room,” he says. “It’s also done over lunch and dinner and by having our partners in Singapore come to Virginia.”
Most of his customers are fluent in English. “There is not much of a language barrier,” he says. Before doing business in a foreign county, Fleming says, it’s important to research the culture. “You want to become well versed. The most important thing is to be polite and spend more time listening than talking,” says Fleming. 

Economy in Blacksburg
Startup businesses in Blacksburg and Montgomery County are on the rise. This spring four local startups in Blacksburg – Fitnet, a mobile fitness app; Heyo, which provides a social marketing platform for small businesses; LawnStarter and VirtualU, which works with 3D scanning and human avatars – secured $4.1 million of angel and venture financing to grow their companies. The Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, adjacent to Virginia Tech, has grown to more than 150 research, technology and support companies. Local entrepreneurs founded about 60 percent of the companies in the park. Major employers in Blacksburg include Virginia Tech, Dish Network, Moog, which manufactures motion control products, aerospace company Alliant Techsystems and the Montgomery County School Board.

Economy in Singapore
Singapore is one of the world’s largest exporters. The country has a large petroleum and petrochemical industry as well as a prominent manufacturing sector that includes digital and electronics manufacturing. Tourism and financial business services also factor in the country’s economy. One of the country’s growing economic sectors is biotechnology. Major employers include Pan Pacific Hotel Groups, Singapore Airlines, Shell Eastern Trading (a supplier of liquified natural gas) and agribusiness group Wilmar International Limited.

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