If your idea of a remote-handling engineer is Homer Simpson standing outside a leaded-glass window with his arms shoved into rubber gloves, juggling rods of plutonium, then think again.

Remote handling has gone beyond even the realms of science fiction into a world where virtual reality is the name of the game and the technology is at the cutting-edge of science.

And Oxfordshire leads the world in a particularly specialised area. The Jet project at Culham is the world's only operational remote maintenance system for a nuclear fusion machine, and one company, Oxford Technologies, is responsible for most of the work.

The company, winner of the Blue by Darbys Small Business category at the Oxfordshire Business Awards last year, was founded a decade ago by the managers and engineers who were providing Jet's remote handling.

Founder Alan Rolfe, who was previously the team leader of the Jet contracting engineers, said: “It was a very slow start. We had a virtual office at Culham Innovation Centre and then we started to get business outside Jet, so we took on two engineers and physical space at Culham.

“Then, four years ago, we came to Abingdon and have grown much bigger.”

The company's rapid growth throughout the depths of the recession was one reason for its win at the awards. Of its 30 staff, 12 are based at Jet, with others in France, Belgium and the Netherlands as well as Abingdon.

Nuclear fusion is one of the great hopes for the world’s future energy needs with Europe, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US all contributing to Jet's successor, the Iter project.

Iter is still being built in France, with full fusion power not expected until the 2020s. It aims to harness energy created by fusing the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium — the reaction that happens in the centre of the sun. The process needs careful handling, since surrounding material becomes radioactive.

Mr Rolfe said: “Our growth is because of the investment in fusion in Europe. We are the only people in the world who have done remote handling on a fusion machine, because Jet is the only fusion machine that has ever needed remote handling and is the only one to use deuterium and tritium.

“The next generation of machines will have to work with tritium. Iter will produce a lot of fusion and will need a lot of remote handling. It is surviving the recession because its a worldwide problem. China, India — everyone wants it to happen, so there is a fair amount of money being spent. We are in a good place.”

Returning to Homer Simpson, whose movements are translated directly to the machine — the equivalent of poking radioactive material with a stick — the fusion experts say their technology is many times more sophisticated.

Oxford Technologies marketing manager Stephen Sanders said: “Our competitors' remote handling experience is in fission, and has been very simple — lifting fuel rods in and out. We are doing very complex maintenance of an intricate machine.”

It involves a virtual reality system, with movements followed on a screen, and the operator even able to 'feel' forces through the robotic arm.

Mr Sanders said: “We have 5bn euros coming to a little group of engineers from Oxfordshire to help Iter to devise its management regime because our expertise is unique to the people who have come out of Jet.”

The award also reflects the company's ability to respond to new ideas, for example in the area of space exploration, where remote handling expertise is also valued.

Mr Sanders explained: “With space samples, scientists have to be confident that they are untouched. That's why they need remote handling. On the Mars mission, for example, they have to assemble the samples in an ultra-sterile environment, with no spores in the air.

“Or when you are collecting samples from a meteorite, it's very difficult to do it using humans, even if you put them into clean suits. You can't manipulate using heat or chemicals because, if you are looking for evidence from Mars, you have to be sure that it hasn't been contaminated by even a tiny cell from earth.”

The company is also involved in nuclear fission, having won contracts for the clean-up of Dounreay — though Mr Rolfe notes wryly that nuclear clean-up funding has dried up during the recession, with finish dates delayed by public spending cuts.

Unusually, Oxford Technologies is owned by its staff. Each new employee is offered shares in the company, and each year thereafter.

Mr Rolfe said: “If someone leaves they are required to sell them back. It means that as the company grows, the shares become more valuable and everyone shares in its success.”

He expects the growth in turnover and staff to continue, albeit at a lower level of ten per cent a year, rather than the recent 20 per cent.

“We punch above our weight, with big stands at fusion conferences. I think some of our clients would be astonished that we are so small.”

Name: Oxford Technologies Established: 2000 Founder: Alan Rolfe Number of staff: 30 Annual turnover: £1.9m

Contact: 01235 544872 Web: www.oxfordtechnologies.co.uk