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Ulman announces Howard County program to commercialize inventions

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If RoboSally, a bomb-defusing robot with humanlike hands, is any indication, the future may be coming a little faster to Howard County.

County Executive Ken Ulman announced Thursday a new partnership between the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Howard County Economic Development Authority designed to accelerate the commercialization of new technology developed by the county's scientists.

The county will provide $400,000 over two years for the program, which has been named the Accelerator of Commercial Technology partnership. The Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship, an Economic Development Authority initiative, also will offer work space in its business incubator, iCat, to help technology startups prosper.

Ulman, who made the announcement at a news conference at APL, said the program would help create an "ecosystem" for innovation and economic success, by assembling a team that can guide inventions from the lab to the marketplace.

"We've got the brilliant minds... what we haven't necessarily had is that entire ecosystem... where it's easy to find capital, it's easy to find members to serve on your board and coach and educate and connect those dots. And that's what we're here talking about," Ulman said.

"To see the products that are here — this is Howard County's strength, this is Maryland's strength and this is the future of economic development and prosperity for our state," he added.

One such product is RoboSally, a robot with two prosthetic hands that can take a human's place in dangerous situations such as the dismantling of a bomb.

Many of the lab's inventions were initially developed with military uses in mind, but scientists envision industrial and commercial uses for them as well.

Sally, for example, could be used by police officers and HAZMAT workers.

EMAPS, a mapping system tucked in a backpack that captures 360-degree photographs, radiation hot spots and other data in areas where GPS doesn't work, can be used by soldiers on reconnaissance missions in enemy territory or — as happened recently — Smithsonian docents mapping the Museum of Natural History.

Anti-blast earplugs designed to facilitate communication between soldiers in the field while still protecting their ears, could also be used by construction workers operating loud machinery or airline employees out on the tarmac. The earplugs have a small hole that allows sound to pass through, but when there is an explosion or loud noise a ball fills that hole, protecting the ears from damage.

And for the young at heart, APL scientists have found a way to expand the capabilities of a remote-controlled vehicle bought at the hobby shop. By taping a "brain" to the top of a battery-powered toy car or truck, users can pilot the vehicle from a computer, avoiding obstacles and exploring unreachable spaces.

"You buy the device that fits your needs," said Christopher Brown, who developed the "brain" device with colleague Mike Kutzer. "Eventually we'll be able to do boats and flying vehicles, even your garage door — you can control your garage door over the Internet."

"People have no idea of the breadth of the work that goes on here," Ulman said as he surveyed tables of innovations developed at the Hopkins lab.

"The work done here advances science and technology," said Lawrence Twele, CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority. "And now through the talented teams at the lab here ... we're going to be able to help take these technologies that will create companies, that will create jobs and wealth to benefit the community. That's really what it's all about."

As for RoboSally, Ulman said he was in awe. "I'm still not sure how Sally shook my hand, but more importantly, how she did a fist bump," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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