If Dr. Bob Touchton could look into the future, he would probably see
the day when unmanned trucks would travel to destinations with their
drivers comfortably sitting back at the office.
That future may not be as distant as it seems after reviewing the
type of work Touchton is doing as vice president for business
innovation and robotics at Prioria Robotics, a technology company in
Gainesville. Touchton's newest job is the latest in a long series of
career moves that have thrust the UNF grad into the forefront of the
nation's robotics industry.
Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most people have heard
of unmanned aerial vehicles which eliminate the need to send pilots
into high-risk areas. Prioria produces electronics for these drones.
Touchton is heading up a new business line relating to ground mobile
robotics. For example, some machinery in the mining industry is not
only dangerous for an operator but companies often struggle to find
qualified personnel to operate it. If these machines can be operated
without a human it will be good from a safety angle and help eliminate
personnel shortages in these areas, Touchton said.
Touchton's interest in robotics is a perfect fit given his
engineering and computer science background. A graduate of Lee High
School in Jacksonville, Touchton received a bachelor's degree in
nuclear engineering at the University of Florida followed by a master's
degree in nuclear science and engineering at Carnegie-Mellon University.
After working for Westinghouse, where he was a senior engineer at
the company's offshore power systems division, he and several others
started their own company, Path Tech Software Solutions Inc. in 1984.
As the company grew and the projects became more complex, Touchton said
he realized he was having difficulty leading the company with his
engineering background. That's when he decided to come to UNF where he
earned his master's degree in computer science in 1995.
UNF also served as an important labor pool for the new company. "We
really liked UNF graduates and always looked here first. We had
graduates from other universities who were very good at theory but
frequently languished on the job. UNF graduates are more likely to be
in the workforce already and know how to live with deadlines."
Touchton's involvement with UNF grew deeper as both he and PathTech
prospered. He worked with Dr. Charles Winton to be one of the first
universities to bring BOTBALL - high school robotics competition - to
UNF. He also briefly served on the dean's advisory council and was
named UNF's Distinguished Alumni Award winner.
In 2000, PathTech was acquired by Strategic Technologies Inc., an
information technologies company based in Cary, N.C. Touchton
eventually left the company in 2003 and returned to school, this time
at the University of Florida where he received his doctorate in
mechanical engineering, specializing in robotics in 2006. While at UF,
he was a graduate research assistant in the Center for Intelligent
Machines and Robotics and was a member of the DARPA Grand Challenge
teams that went on to become finalists in 2004 and 2005. The teams
competed to design and deploy a vehicle to autonomously cross the
The experience propelled Touchton to a position with Honeywell's
Business Innovation Center in Phoenix, where he was the managing
director of autonomous systems for advanced vehicle electronics. When
the company discontinued the division in 2008, he returned to Florida.
Although his new job absorbs a great deal of his attention, Touchton
still devotes time to playing his bass guitar. He and his wife Cheryle
have a son Christopher who graduated from UNF with a bachelor's degree
in 1998. Touchton's daughter-in-law Whitney received a bachelor's
degree in business administration from UNF in 1999 and is working
toward her master's degree.
Despite the ups and downs in the industry, Touchton is optimistic
about the future of robotic innovation and is grateful to UNF for
making it possible to combine his engineering background with computer
science technology. "They gave me the language to be successful."
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