Globally, defense giant Raytheon Corp. is best known for its high-profile Patriot missile system that's become a standard in 20-plus years of Middle East conflict.
In Tampa Bay, and especially Pinellas County, Raytheon's profile is lower key and perhaps more controversial. It ranges from its roles as a 1,750-employee builder of advanced military communications systems and math-and-science advocate to its recent status as a defendant facing a class-action lawsuit from neighbors of its aging St. Petersburg facility, the source of a toxic underground plume.
But Raytheon wants to become better known for its work in making algae a large-scale tool in absorbing excess carbon, for its making the high-security telephone that sits on President Obama's White House desk, for developing sophisticated surveillance systems that protect the New York City area's four airports and can offer advanced traffic management on our busiest roads.
Raytheon, in fact, is on a big push to do what many major defense contractors say they must do: diversify and leverage their military engineering and offer versions of that same expertise for an increasingly security-conscious civilian population.
That's good for boosting our society's general protection. But it may prove divisive as more military-developed systems are applied to the country in general.
Still, as the Afghan and Iraq wars inevitably wind down, Raytheon is on the hunt for new business opportunities from the Department of Homeland Security, large civilian customers and big international corporations — all in need of better protection.
"Raytheon's looking way ahead and anticipates a decline in military spending," says Willy Schweikert, Raytheon director of engineering in Florida. "After 9/11, we have seen and expect to see more demand for protection of the nation's borders, oil refineries and businesses in general."
On Thursday evening, Raytheon put its best technology face forward. The company took over the nonprofit Pinellas Science Center to showcase many of the newer, next-stage projects in which the company hopes to become a player. The invitation-only event attracted about 400 Raytheon employees and their families and was intended, in part, to show younger people how "cool" engineering work can be.
Cool indeed. Raytheon also sponsors the new Sum of All Thrills simulator ride that opened last month at Walt Disney World's Epcot. Guests can "engineer" or design their own thrill ride using math and science principles. Then they experience their own custom ride via a simulator — a giant robotic arm that powers the riders' experience.
What was so striking at Thursday's tech show was the extraordinary range of nonmilitary pursuits Raytheon has on its drawing boards.
It's pushing into renewable energy, initially as a systems integrator, helping diverse businesses combine their talents in larger-scale carbon-capture projects. The defense industry, a major energy user, is one of Raytheon's target industries.
It's marketing its expertise in high-end surveillance and monitoring systems to the government for border patrol security and to airports and oil refineries for higher-level protection.
It's pushing into cyber defense, in which systems are built to repel online attacks of critical computer networks (or designed to attack others).
But Raytheon's bread and butter in Florida remains military projects. When I toured Raytheon many years ago, it was working on a collective radar system, called Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC), that could be shared among ships and planes. What was the size of multiple refrigerators back then is now the size of a breadbox and far more sophisticated.
"CEC still generates the most revenue" for Raytheon's Florida operations, Schweikert says. "It's still the big dog."
To "force" innovation among its engineers, Schweikert says the company generously funds research and even holds contests. Schweikert, 45, has been the company's director of engineering here going on five years and previously worked for Raytheon and other defense companies in California.
His heart, at least his baseball heart, is still out west. He was bummed when the Los Angeles Dodgers fell to the Philadelphia Phillies in this fall's National League playoffs. Schweikert even keeps some Dodger stadium seats in his office. The company also partners with the Tampa Bay Rays to visit area schools and encourage kids to appreciate how many ways math and science can be put to use.
Raytheon, certainly not the same company I visited long ago, is clearly in rapid transition. And it won't be today's company when I visit them again.
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]