Nestled at the back of a business park in Fuquay-Varina, between the woods and a lawn strewn with rusty old propane tanks, is a company at the cutting edge of manufacturing and technology.
SuperDroid Robots is, by its name alone, a company for the 21st century. It sells custom-built robots and parts to customers, ranging from amateur hobbyists to massive corporations, police agencies and the U.S. government.
Despite calling Fuquay-Varina home for the last decade, the company isn’t well-known around town. That was never part of the business plan anyway, as it’s not geared to selling to individuals.
But SuperDroid Robots will soon have a more public profile, thanks to being featured on two television shows.
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Later this month, the company will be featured on the Science Channel’s “All-American Makers” show in a segment that catches up with the company from a 2014 episode.
Last month, the business appeared on Fox’s Saturday morning show, “Xploration Earth 2050.” In the episode, the idea is presented that mom-and-pop robotics shops could be commonplace in 35 years and robots will be the first choice to tackle national security concerns and household chores alike.
Susan and Charlie Payne are forging the model with SuperDroid Robots.
The company has made robots with practical applications, including surveillance and bomb disposal units for local law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; remote control snowplows; a video-equipped robot that was embedded with a pride of lions for National Geographic; and “telepresence” machines that allow doctors to remotely work with patients in different cities.
Just about every piece of every robot is made in-house. The circuit boards are put together upstairs, and sheets of metal are cut and welded in the basement. Next to the machine shop, a team of builders puts the pieces together with the help of computers, 3D printers and more.
The 12-person staff includes a welder and an Army vet who used to drive robots, plus engineers and physicists.
Susan Payne, the CEO, and Charlie Payne, the engineer and inventor, have even brought on their 18-year-old son, Griffin, as an apprentice while he finishes up his senior year at Fuquay-Varina High School.
The Paynes are passionate about their work.
Susan Payne, with a background in business and politics, talks fast. Charlie Payne is quiet, unless he starts talking about something he’s passionate about. Mostly, that means vehicles.
When he’s not building robots for work, Charlie builds drones for fun. And even at work, he builds offbeat side projects, such as a remote control golf cart, and a bulldozer that looks like a tank and has twin paintball gun turrets.
Susan’s favorite, on the other hand, is a mobile beer keg and tap system built in partnership with Aviator Brewing Company, their neighbor on Technology Park Drive.
People who don’t know the Paynes or their company might be familiar with the old Comedy Central show “Battlebots,” a cult classic in which two robots fight to the “death” in front of a live audience. Charlie Payne helped build The Atomic Wedgie, which made it to the championship match of Season 2 in 2001.
The Paynes got royalties from the show and a subsequent line of Happy Meal toys, Susan said. They used that money to start SuperDroid.
They came to Fuquay-Varina about 10 years ago. They had moved from Maryland to California and were looking for a place to set up shop, and they chose Fuquay-Varina, even though it was about half the size it is now.
She said she conducted a nationwide search for cities near an international airport with affordable land, good public schools and near a college with a good engineering program, “and Fuquay just kept popping up.”
“We didn’t want to be in RTP because we were too small to make an impact there,” she said.
But the company is poised to keep growing, Payne said, as robots become cheaper, more useful and more ubiquitous.
She said they’re glad to be on the cutting edge.
And it’s resulted in one ironic development. As awareness of the company has grown, its work has sometimes become more confidential. They’ve been asked to complete secretive work for companies like Microsoft and Disney, which placed vague orders for partially completed robots and stacks of parts.
Susan Payne said isn’t complaining.
“We don’t ask,” she said. “I figure it’s a need-to-know basis.”
Doran: 919-460-2604; @will_doran
Watch the episode of “Xploration Earth 2050” featuring SuperDroid Robots for free on Hulu at hulu.com/watch/883856.