Whether they're probing the oceans for deep-sea oil reserves or probing the streets of Baghdad for roadside bombs, robots are becoming indispensable these days.
Behind the vast majority of them is a little-known company called Prizm Advanced Communication Electronics.
Last month, the $6 million-a-year research and manufacturing firm quietly moved from Elkridge to Glen Burnie - the latest fiber-optic technology firm to take up residence in the area.
"We tend to be the technology leaders in this business," company President David Clifford said. "It's a niche market that we created."
Prizm's products are exactly what you need to remotely operate a complex robot - computer chips enabling the robot to communicate over miles of fiber-optic data cables and matching hardware on the user end to allow human control.
That's perfect for oil and gas companies, which use underwater robots to map the ocean floor, looking for oil reserves and scouting out the geography to determine whether an oil rig can be built.
"We had 90 percent of the market share for oil rigs ... pretty much everywhere in the world," Mr. Clifford said. "We were so specialized we didn't really have any competitor then."
Mr. Clifford left an engineering program at the University of Miami in 1977 to pursue business and sales jobs. He founded Prizm in 1994, when he realized there was a lucrative - though tiny - niche for highly specialized electronics.
That market is still small today, but Prizm has expanded its operations from to serve more than 200 clients worldwide, including major defense contractors and oceanographic exploration agencies.
The company grew by capitalizing on its ability to specialize, said Bob Sullivan, sales manager.
"We listen to our customers," he said.
One customer was Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, made famous when one of its underwater robots discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985. In 2002, the institute asked Prizm to provide a telemetry system for its latest underwater robot, dubbed Jason II.
"What makes them strong is that they can customize," said Chris Taylor, a research engineer at Wood's Hole. "They're very willing to listen to what your needs are and try to help design something for that."
In the case of Jason, the institution needed a system that could take data from the robot's numerous sensors and transmit them to human operators on the surface.
Prizm already sells a device known as a multiplexer that does exactly that - but Jason needed a multiplexer with more capacity.
"(Multiplexers) give the ability to convert any computer, video or data signal into light so that it can be transferred over fiber-optic," Mr. Sullivan said. "It's like a funnel. You got all these data signals on the (wide) end, being put through one narrow point."
That one point is a fiber-optic cable, made from microscopic lengths of glass and sheathed in flexible materials for protection. The cable connects a robot like Jason to the surface vessel with its human crew.
"It was a state-of-the-art system," said Will Sellers, who pilots underwater robots for the institute. "It's all about the bandwidth. Previously your choice was co-ax cable, and with that limited bandwidth you'd be able to look at one camera. Jason's got eight cameras and sonar."
That's why fiber-optic cables are necessary - they can transfer more data more quickly by using light as a transportation medium.
Other local companies have played a role in the fiber-optic sector, including Linthicum-based Ciena Corp. Though the two companies apply the same multiplexer technology, however, they use them for completely different ends.
Prizm doesn't actually manufacture the cables, but it does incorporate them in another product: precisely wound spools of fiber-optic cable.
"No one can wind fiber as well as we can," Mr. Sullivan said. "It's incredibly difficult to do because if the fiber is even slightly kinked, the light won't pass through and it becomes worthless. Outside the government, we're the only ones in the world that's developed the technology to wind the cables perfectly."
The U.S. Army uses the spools to control its explosive ordnance disposal robots in Iraq - with Prizm's equipment being used on the vast majority of such robots, Mr. Sullivan said.
The company has begun applying for patents on its various products, and Mr. Clifford hopes to expand Prizm's work on defense-oriented projects.
Copyright © 2007 The Capital, Annapolis, Md.