A seemingly endless run of R&D labs deep inside Honeywell's Golden Valley campus hide a host of gee-whiz prototypes that hope to one day save American lives, energy and money.
There's the firefighter locator system that can do what a GPS can't: Find fallen rescuers inside of dense buildings. Another potential gem is a security system that can read the irises of eyes, detect faces and discreetly ID bad guys from afar.
A third project -- admittedly less James Bond and more John Doe homeowner -- analyzes the energy used by refrigerators, furnaces and air conditioners and spits out money-saving tips via a simple Kindle e-reader.
They are just a few of the multimillion-dollar innovations morphing inside Honeywell International's former headquarters in Minnesota. While Allied Signal bought Honeywell in 1999 and moved its corporate headquarters to New Jersey, the Minnesota-born energy and aerospace giant keeps pushing the technological envelope right here in the Twin Cities.
"The key for all of this is you see Honeywell spending on R&D, driving innovation and driving it to be commercialized," said Steven Winoker, an equity research analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. "This is a company that starts with customer needs and works backwards to meet those needs."
In a rare move, Honeywell recently invited the Star Tribune to peek inside its R&D labs in Golden Valley. They are where Honeywell runs its $15.5 billion automation control solutions business (ACS) and where it whips up 450 new products and patents each year. A good chunk of the corporation's $1.7 billion R&D funds are spent at its Golden Valley campus, said spokesman Mark Hamel.
The ingenious Glanser
Among the most ingenious innovations to emerge from Golden Valley is a locator that works, in real time, to find firefighters that may be trapped inside thick buildings.
During the Star Tribune's recent visit, Aravind Padmanabhan, Honeywell's global vice president of sensors and its wireless lab, donned a 35-pound firefighter harness holding an air tank, gas monitor and an odd black box with a triangular cap that jetted to one side.
Honeywell calls the box Glanser. It developed the technology by marrying its inventory warehouse scanners with the aircraft navigation systems it created for the military.
The Plymouth Fire Department is one of 12 departments testing Glanser. "For us, this would greatly enhance firefighter safety," said Chief Rick Kline. "We would know where [our guys] are inside the building. It locates them to within 3 to 5 feet."
In early tests, Plymouth firefighters belted up and crawled around the basement of their Fire Station No. 2, putting Glanser through its paces. "We were seeing if we could track firefighters from floor to floor and from room to room," Kline said. "There were successes and failures. But Honeywell would continue to work on that and refine it."
Months ago, Kline and Fire Capt. Tom Evenson used Honeywell's monitoring software on a laptop while upstairs in the firehouse. A green circle popped on the screen, indicating a Glanser-wearing firefighter stumbling around blind in the dark basement training room.
On the laptop, "We could see a green dot moving in every direction," Evenson said. "We could see when he went [to] the rear door and came back. It's pretty amazing."
During a different test, a firefighter wore the Glanser, entered an unfamiliar office building, feigned injury, crouched and stopped moving. Kline used the laptop to see where the firefighter was and used his radio to direct a rescuer right to the fallen firefighter.
"With each test, we got closer and closer and better and better," Kline said.
Honeywell already has made improvements to the device. For starters, it's much smaller than it used to be.
The first model was a big, bulky backpack. "We laughed about that," Kline said.
A security sweet spot
Buried in Honeywell's campus, past more locked doors, lies what could be another potential blockbuster for the company.
Honeywell Engineering Program Manager Rand Whillock stood beside his "baby," a powerful but portable tower of infrared flashes and a pivoting camera.
From 15 feet away, Whillock's camera snapped pictures of guests' faces and converted the stripped images of each iris into digital barcodes.
"If we get a good image of your iris, it's better than a fingerprint," he said. The hope is the combined eye and face ID system will one day discreetly ID suspects in busy airports, malls or stadiums.
Today, it takes up to 30 seconds to recognize an iris and face with images from government databases. "We'd like to get it down to 2 seconds," Whillock said.
"That's scary," quipped Winoker of Sanford C. Bernstein. Seriously, he added, "They have a lot of security operations and this sounds like one more ... It's their sweet spot."
The prototype, a joint effort with U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is nine years in the making and probably has a few years to go. So far, "it works in a practical setting," Whillock said. If developed fully, it could be a huge win for Honeywell. But competitors lurk, including 3M, which also offers facial ID products.
'Amazing' effort to cut energy bills
Honeywell also is targeting the common consumer.
Two years ago, the company won a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a smart technology to help homeowners slash ghastly energy bills.
Early results are "amazing," said DOE project officer Yanna Rasulova in Washington, D.C. "The typical American family spends $1,900 a year on home energy bills. If technology can improve their control over energy, that's definitely one thing we want to tackle."
In Elk River, Honeywell's CASHEM energy monitoring system issued tips that snipped $100 from Jenny and Doug Leaser's September energy bill. The Leasers were one of five local families to test CASHEM this summer.
Back in the lab, advanced technology researcher Wendy Foslien said she's still finalizing the system. Using wireless technology, she tracked the power gobbled by a nearby furnace, Bosch refrigerator, Pentair pool pump, a garage door opener and light. Simple icons appeared on her Kindle and suggested setting changes. "This [Kindle] works like a universal remote," Foslien said.
Tony Uttley, Honeywell ACS vice president of global strategy and marketing, said the home energy tracker and other systems under development are just the latest wonder tools to developing advanced safety, security, home and energy efficiency technology.
He said, "Those four products help drive us."
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725