to Back Issues main page
to Current Issue's Home Page
Doctor of Robotics
By Janice Arenofsky
Noakes is no name dropper, even though the robotics engineer at Oak
Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee has met Secretary of Energy Federico
Pena (under Clinton) and Chief of Staff Howard Baker (under Reagan).
Noakes demonstrated robotics systems for both government officials.
And then there's Noakes' link to Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident
in history. He says his involvement in 1999 was "minor," but
he does admit to walking the Russians through several procedures. "They
have different ways of doing things," says Noakes, who carefully
distinguishes between "team" efforts and "individual"
projects. "No one from our team really wanted to go," he says
jokingly. "It wasn't a vacation place." But the Department
of Energy ordered it.
Noakes' supervisor ended up going to the Ukrainian site while Noakes
remained behind as a consultant. He chased down parts for the on-site
crew and corrected mistakes in equipment hookups. He also helped in
the "hot deployment" of the Pioneer Mobile Robot, which
crawled on tracks at Chernobyl's Reactor 4 and inspected and mapped
contamination areas. "At the time," says Noakes,"we were
concerned that the existing shelter, which was built quickly to encapsulate
the radiation, would fall down." Recently, according to The Washington
Post, the international consortium of countries involved in the Chernobyl
cleanup decided to build a 20,000-ton, movable steel structure around
Noakes, from Knoxville, Tennessee, never imagined a Chernobyl when he
was studying for his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering
at Tennessee Technological University. He worried more about money.
An academic scholarship paid his tuition costs, but Noakes had to work
part-time to pay his living expenses. Despite this, he made the honor
engineering societies, Tau Beta Pi and Eta Kappa Nu. He also worked
for a year as a coop student at NASA-Langley in Hampton, Virginia. Noakes
found himself at the right place at the right time; in 1976, he was
one of the few people to see the first pictures of Earth that Viking
beamed back from outer space.
Upon graduation in 1979, Noakes worked as a design engineer for Robertshaw
Controls Company in Knoxville. "It was fun. Especially for someone
interested in automotive things,” Noakes remembers. Since age
13, Noakes has restored vintage vehicles. At Robertshaw, he designed
sensors for first generation computerized engine controls, pressure
sensors in particular.
While such projects at Robertshaw narrowly focused Noakes' electrical
and mechanical engineering skills, his next position introduced him
to plant engineering and broadened his experience. At Akzoa, Noakes
maintained existing production equipment and designed new systems. As
a result, he learned a lot about computer hardware interfacing, factory
automation, laboratory instrumentation, electromechanical controls,
and power systems. During this time, Noakes started attending night
school for his master's degree.
Meanwhile, Noakes' skills in instrumentation and controls attracted
several people at ORNL, who then offered him a position. So Noakes made
another career move. "Since high school, I had always been interested
in high tech," says Noakes, who belonged to Robotics International.
At first, though, Noakes worked on instrumentation and controls projects
related to energy conservation. But by the end of 1984, he was involved
in teleoperation in hazardous environments. With teleoperation, the
person directly controls the manipulator or remote vehicle. "It's
not automation or artificial intelligence. The human is very much in
the loop," Noakes remarks. " The teleoperator can be from
200' to 2,000' from the hazardous substance. But teleoperating takes
10 times longer than human-handled cleanup operations. In teleoperating
"your hands and eyes aren't directly in the environment,"
says Noakes. Take the World Trade Center disaster. Because no known
hazardous material was identified at the site, New York City used people
for the cleanup operation. "It was a hands-on approach," says
Noakes, "except for little track vehicles (on loan from ORNL) that
had cameras. They passed through tight spots looking for survivors."
However, some operations cannot use humans. They fall under the category
of "hazardous." Radiation and chemical contamination are hazardous
situations, as are bombs or mine fields that haven't exploded during
military exercises. "Until there was teleoperation, crazy people
would sit on a backhoe and dig them up and disarm them," explains
He should know. The author or co-author of some 35 conference papers,
journal articles, and technical reports, Noakes has researched many
robotics projects over the past 12 years. But he is proudest of three.
One was the advanced remotely retained servomanipulator, developed by
Noakes in 1986. "It was state-of-the-art in the world," he
acknowledges. Developed for extremely hazardous environments, the servomanipulator
had parallel process computing, color graphical user interfaces, and
multiple videos. Most importantly, it provided a good way to test remote
tools, such as hydraulic manipulators and swing-free crane controls.
The second project was damped oscillation crane control in 1990. Using
algorithms developed by Sandia Laboratories in California, Noakes solved
the problem of moving heavy equipment, such as 55-gallon drums weighing
1,000 pounds, without these materials swaying and requiring human intervention.
He converted the overhead transporter into a robot with a range of motion
of 60 x 60 x 40 feet. "That was a lot of fun," says Noakes.
"You didn't have to have people bracing the load. Which meant it
would function well in a hazardous waste situation." Eventually,
ORNL transferred the technology to a commercial partner who manufactured
The third project involved the dismantling of an old research reactor
in Chicago. Called Chicago Pile (CP) 5, the reactor had sat closed for
15 years. However, it was still too "hot" for people to take
apart. Acting as a consultant for a year, Noakes supplied the technology
to deactivate and decommission the reactor. Having done that, Noakes
knew the weaknesses of the technology. First, he needed to design a
smaller, more compact, operator-control station. This would make the
process cheaper and easier to carry out. A more difficult problem was
to speed up the operation (since teleoperating takes so long). Noakes
realized robotics would add autonomous abilities and make the operation
more cost-effective. "You can program things to do something in
an exact way, but the environment must be fixed or structured,"
says Noakes. "That's why you see robots in manufacturing plants,
and you don't see them anywhere else."
Other national labs and universities have tackled the tough problem
of how to use robotics in an unstructured environment. "We are
making progress," says Noakes, "but our goal is to make things
ten times better than they are now." One way Noakes is improving
things is developing sensor-based methods controls. Until now, engineers
have had to build a model of the robot's task, then program the robot
based on that model. Noakes and his team want to eliminate the model.
"The goal is to do a real task, such as remove a contaminated part,
right away," he says. "We need sensor-based systems that provide
correction while interacting with the environment." Noakes is experimenting
with torch cutting and saw cutting projects using sensor tools that
draw from environmental cues and sensory data to perform the task.
Although the Department of Energy pays for most of Noakes' research,
other government agencies and private companies can contract with ORNL.
For instance, from 1989 to 1992, NASA paid ORNL to test the remote assembly
of space station trusses. Says Noakes, "We did some early prototypes
for space station robotics."
Noakes says he will remain in robotics for the next five to 10 years,
provided the funding lasts. But if he has to switch engineering areas,
the automotive field is his choice. "I've always been interested
in high-efficiency automotive systems," he says, "particularly
In fact, his hobbies express his passion for combining mechanics with
speed. He used to fly a Cessna 150 until tuition and family responsibilities
made it financially impossible. But he still solo races in a 1986 Corvette.
"It's good for stress relief," says Noakes, who's married
and has two young boys.
Noakes is working on his doctoral dissertation and expects to get a
Ph.D. in engineering science later this year. "I'm pretty fortunate,"
admits Noakes. "Robotics projects are fulfilling for me, and I
enjoy working in research and development." And people in Chernobyl
and other areas around the world are safer because of his passion.
Janice Arenofsky is a freelance writer in Scottsdale,