COLUMBIA -- After years of helping nuclear power plants figure out how best to clean up tanks of radioactive water, Eugene Silverman realized that it was just too dangerous to continue sending protective-suited crews with hoses and brushes into the containers.
What the plants needed, he thought, was some kind of remote-control, amphibious Dustbuster to do the hazardous work, said the 44-year-old president of the ARD Corp. here.
So Mr. Silverman and some of his researchers invented the Superscavenger, a tank-tracked underwater vacuum with a waterproof video camera that sends pictures to an operator directing the machine several hundred yards away.
In the three years since it was invented, ARD engineers have assembled and sold 38 of the 2-foot-long, 2-foot-high yellow plastic robots.
And Mr. Silverman, who has overseen ARD's growth from a one-man consulting firm in a back room of his house to a 43-person company with four offices nationwide, is betting that the demand for his company's robot invention is almost limitless.
ARD is applying for a patent for Superscavenger and for a newly developed big brother, a 5-foot-long, 600-pound robot with stereo video cameras and a six-horsepower pump, he said.
Customers and industry experts say the underwater vacuums are be coming increasingly popular.
Harry Roman, head of robotics research for Public Service Electric and Gas Co. in Newark, N.J., said he has bought three of the Superscavengers for work on the utility's nuclear power plants.
Though he has also bought many other underwater robots, Mr. Roman said he doesn't know of any competitor to ARD's amphibious vacuum.
Mr. Roman said he was sold on ARD's robot when he tried it to clean up a pool of water where the utility was storing spent uranium fuel rods a few years ago.
Usually, he explained, the plant's workers had to drain the poolsend the radioactive water to a decontaminating plant, then dress in protectiveyellow suits to scrub the dried pool by hand.
But the Superscavenger, directed by a worker running toggle switches, "cleaned the pool in an amazingly short period of time. Everybody was impressed," he said.
"It takes 15 minutes to learn to operate the thing," and it is easy to run for anyone familiar with video games, he said.
"This allows us to remove humans from potentially hazardous situations. We are not replacing humans; we are taking humans FTC out of nasty situations," Mr. Roman said.
Mr. Roman, who is considered one of the nuclear power industry's experts on robots, predicted that ARD's underwater vacuums will find buyers in all kinds of industries.
Mark Thomas, coordinator of the underwater vacuum product line for ARD, said the company is following its terrestrial brothers in offering accessories such as brushes, water jets and hyped-up motors.
With all the new options, the company hopes to sell the underwater vacuums to chemical companies, coal plant operators and anyone else who has a dangerous, liquid cleanup job.
Mr. Thomas, who refused to say what the company's revenues are, said sales of the $67,000 Superscavengers have made his division the engine of ARD's growth.
"This vehicle is limited only by the imagination of the user," he said.