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Honeybee Robotics

by Eric Peterson on September 24, 2018, 10:53 am MDT

www.honeybeerobotics.com

Longmont, Colorado / Pasadena, California / Brooklyn, New York

Founded: 1983

Privately owned by Ensign-Bickford Industries

Employees: 140 (about 55 in Longmont; 55 in Pasadena; 30 in Brooklyn)

Industry: Electronics & Aerospace

Products: Robotics and satellite services

After working on the Mars rovers, President Kiel Davis is involved in projects ranging from satellite-based broadband to the exploration of planets, moons, and comets.

Named for "nature's best systems engineer," Honeybee was born in Lower Manhattan in the early 1980s. Co-founder and Chairman Stephen Gorevan "was the visionary for the company," says Davis. "He focused for the first few years on the manufacturing sector and bringing automation to factories."

Honeybee initially worked as a systems integrator for manufacturers, providing "last-mile engineering" spanning software to robotic hands for "turnkey robotic work cells," says Davis. "There was a gap in the marketplace."

A vision for the International Space Station coalesced after the Challenger disaster in 1986. NASA looked to reduce the risks to astronauts during construction, and sought to leverage robotics to do just that. Gorevan approached NASA with some ideas. "The next thing you know, we're being pulled into that whole world," says Davis.

Photo Jonathan Castner

In the 1990s, Honeybee "pivoted from on-orbit robotics to planetary robotics," says Davis, who joined Honeybee in 1996. That started with work on the first Mars lander, Sojourner, that began exploring the Red Planet in 1997, and continued with rock-abrasion technology for Spirit and Opportunity, that landed in 2003,  The company also built the sample manipulation system and dust removal tool on Curiosity, the rover that's been on Mars since 2012.

Honeybee expanded west in the last decade, opening offices in Longmont and Pasadena in 2010. Chief Engineer Ron Hayes had worked from Longmont three weeks a month since 2008, and VP of Flight Systems Erik Mumm and other engineers steadily joined him in Colorado. "In 2014, it turned the corner," says Davis, who moved to Longmont in summer 2017. "The plan is to transition the headquarters to Longmont. This is going to be the headquarters moving forward."

There were several reasons for the move. "Obviously, it's centrally located and some of our biggest customers are here, including Lockheed Martin and Ball," he says. "There's a pretty deep and wide pool of talent here."

Photo Jonathan Castner

With the satellite business on the rise, "It just felt like a natural place for our headquarters," sadds Davis. "The whole area along the Front Range is a fantastic place to do business, especially in the aerospace business."

Longmont is also home to the company's Spacecraft Systems group, which makes mission-specific electromechanical devices, including sun-tracking solar array drives, gimbal systems, and attitude control actuators. "We do the mechanics and electronics here in clean rooms and thermal vacuum chambers," says Davis. "It's not unlike what you see at Sierra Nevada or Ball."

In Pasadena, Honeybee's Planetary Exploration division makes robotic systems for rovers and landers. "They're parked next to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory," says Davis. "That's our niche: sample acquisition and sample handling. More and more missions involve material sampling."

It's about manufacturing drills and other tools to extract samples from any given planet or other heavenly body. These projects tend to be custom jobs for NASA, while those in Longmont involve replicable work for smaller satellites.

Photo Jonathan Castner

"There, the thermal vacuum chamber simulates Mars or the surface of the Moon or a comet," says Davis of Honeybee's Pasadena facility. "The facilities in Longmont and Pasadena are similar in some regards, but we're really serving two different end markets."

The team in Brooklyn works on satellite servicing, surgical robotics, and technology for oil and gas. "We're developing a lot of pipeline inspection robotic platforms," says Davis. "We're sort of getting out of medical, but we still have a few projects going on there. . . . We're the engineering partner for a lot of doctors who have concepts for new ways of surgery."

Space is Honeybee's biggest market by far. "About 85 percent of what we do is in space, and most of that is for NASA," says Davis.

One notable non-NASA project has proven a game changer for Honeybee: OneWeb, the 882-satellite constellation that will offer worldwide broadband starting in 2019; Honeybee is making the solar array drive assemblies. "They've ordered about 900 satellites worth of equipment," says Davis. "It's an unprecedented size of order for our industry."

Photo Jonathan Castner

It's part of a broader trend, he adds. "A lot of these new space-based businesses, it's become very entrepreneurial, very venture-driven over the last five or so years."

That's led Honeybee to pivot to higher-volume, lower-cost manufacturing. "It's a whole new approach to hit a pretty challenging cost target," says Davis.

In Pasadena, the team is working on a pair of missions that are finalists in NASA's New Frontiers program: CAESAR, which would attempt to secure a sample from a comet and return to Earth; and Dragonfly, an unmanned quadcopter that will suck up samples from Titan, the largest and thought to be the most habitable of Saturn's 62 moons. "We're happy to be supporting both," says Davis. "We're hoping both win."

Davis describes Honeybee's recent growth as dynamic. "We've grown 50 percent year-over-year for the past three years," he says. "A lot of companies in out business have experienced similar growth the past few years."

Photo Jonathan Castner

In 2017, Connecticut-based Ensign-Bickford Industries acquired Honeybee. "They brought a lot of expertise," says Davis, noting that's especially important as Honeybee ramps up manufacturing in Longmont. "We've had to learn how to be a manufacturer and not just engineer a product. They've really helped with that evolution."

Davis says Ensign-Bickford "has a larger strategy" that also involves sister company Avior Controls in Longmont. "There's a critical mass in Longmont," he says of the decision to move the headquarters from New York.

After 20 years in New York, Davis was also ready for a change. "I love it there, but I had my fill," he says. "I just absolutely love this area."

Challenges: "Making sure we deliver on the commitments we've made," says Davis. "The challenges we're seeing are more related to execution, because of our growth rate."

Photo Honeybee Robotics

Opportunities: "We see a lot of opportunity in space with this shift towards smaller satellites," says Davis. "Honeybee sees a lot of opportunity for our motion-control products."

Future sales drivers could include robotic satellite servicing systems and "in situ resource utilization," where missions use resources on other planetary bodies as fuel or construction or manufacturing materials.

Davis thinks oil and gas could be another catalyst for Honeybee, and the company is currently working on a robotic system to inspect pipelines with ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco. "We're more in a development phase," says Davis. "We're definitely looking at what our strategy is going to be in oil and gas." Space has "a lot of common with these oilfield and refinery environments," he adds.

Photo Honeybee Robotics

Needs: "In Longmont, we're definitely bursting at the seams and we're looking at options," says Davis of the current 20,000-square-foot facility. "We're looking to double that at least. . . . We really want to create a space that attracts the best talent around."

That's because of Honeybee's ongoing need for experienced engineers and other team members. "The unemployment rate in this area is extremely low. It's an extremely competitive environment for recruiting talent."

He says CU, CSU, and Mines provide a solid talent base. "There are some great feeder programs for the aerospace sector, but we've got some giants like Ball, Sierra Nevada, and Lockheed Martin, and they need talent, too."

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