The ROV Renaissance man

Elaine Maslin

October 1, 2015

This year has been a year of anniversaries for many, not least OE, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, alongside first oil from the North Sea. Another firm marking a milestone is Schilling Robotics, now FMC Technologies Schilling Robotics, which is 30 years old this year. Elaine Maslin met co-founder Tyler Schilling.

Tyler Schilling.

Tyler Schilling has been credited with being something of a renaissance man. The head of what has become a, if not the, leading business in the ROV industry, he is involved in every part of the firm, from the boardroom to the machine shop and the electronics lab.

So, it may be a surprise that his break into subsea robotics was the result of working as a fabricator in the crew of a motorsports team, which was the result of a summer job working on vintage race cars for a neighbor at his father’s ranch.

These were all a series of chances that set Schilling on a path to co-found Schilling Robotics, with Wes Gerriets, 30 years ago this year.

However, it’s perhaps not so surprising, given his background, and a continued love of the automotive sector – he says seeing what the auto industry is doing (think automated parallel parking) is a bell-weather for where subsea robotics should be going, although he’s not so keen to work on today’s cars.

“I was very fortunate to grow up at a time when anything seemed possible,” says Schilling, from Davis, California. “That was the whole atmosphere, not only in the world, but also living near Silicon Valley, where all the break-through things were happening in semi-conductor industries.”

He also lived in a household “where you made things.” His father, originally a machinist at a firm that made turret lathes, trained to become a physician, but the house retained its metal lathe, wood-working tools, printing set and more.

When his father retired and bought a ranch in California’s coastal mountain range, Schilling and his three brothers went to help out in the summer. “As luck would have it, the next door neighbor restored historic race cars for a living, so I got a summer job working with him, as a metal fabricator and painter of these things,” Schilling says. When the racing reason came along, he joined a Can Am team and, in 1982, at one of the races, at Road Atlanta, he met Andrew Bazely, a former mink farmer. “He was a true renaissance man,” Schilling says. “He had a remarkable race car that had incredible innovations from the front to the rear and not only did he design all of it, he also built it.”

Bazely also had an underwater products firm, Hydroscan, in San Diego and asked Schilling to join. “The first project was designing and manufacturing robotic arms to go on a newfangled thing called an ROV,” Schilling says. “That’s how I got my exposure to ROVs. In addition, what I learned from him was fearlessness about what problems to attack. While he didn’t express it this way, it was clear to me his attitude was ‘someone in the world makes everything, so why not me.’ It’s a fairly liberating concept.”

Schilling had found his niche; robotic manipulator arms and, in 1985, he co-founded Schilling Robotics, along with Gerriets. The rest, as they say, is history. Schilling Robotics was sold to Alstom in 1992, under whose ownership the company moved into ROVs, while its manipulators went on to be adopted by competitors such as Oceaneering. The firm has been owned by FMC Technologies since 2012.

But, Schilling has never lost an interest in and for both mechanical engineering and for the latest advances in technology, such as the use of video sensors and complex positioning systems based on algorithms developed by the global “app” developer community.

He has a passion for mechanical wrist watches and when the iPhone 6 came out he bought two, one to use and the other to pull apart. “We all marvel at Apple’s software, but their mechanical engineering is some of the best on the planet,” he says. “It is a wildly complicated machine but you can just turn it on and start exploring.”

Schilling lives, works and breathes subsea robotics, while also taking a healthy interest in corporate culture and behaviors. And, despite having developed Schilling Robotics into the market leading position it maintains today, Schilling has never let go of a drive for continuous technology development. In fact, he describes today’s ROVs as “clumsy,” and subsea technology as lagging behind advances seen in the agricultural industry – once seen as a source of more simple and basic engineering.