Local Company Beats Out Big Guys To Make Robots

December 16, 1990|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff writer

HAMPSTEAD - Next to Judy's Beauty Haven and in front of a field of grazing cows, a new company here is making robotic spies for the military.

The company will fashion 14 spies out of all-terrain vehicles for the Marines and Army to use in battles around the world, one of the company's founders said.

The robotic vehicles will help "take man out of harm's way," said Dana E. Caro, a chairman of Robotic Systems Technology Inc.

The Blackrock Road company is a subsidiary of F & M Machine Corp., which, at the same location, makes parts for space shuttles, satellites, jet engines and other machines.

The robotic spies are equipped with acoustical sensors and day and night video cameras. They can run up to 250 miles on diesel fuel and travel up to 35 mph. The unarmed vehicles could carry a soldier or be operated remotely with fiber-optic cables.

The amphibious vehicles weigh about 1,000 pounds and are 46 to 52 inches tall, 51 inches wide and 108 inches long. With mast extended, cameras and sensors can be lifted 10 feet to increase surveillance range.

In the Persian Gulf, for example, the vehicle could be sent to a specific spot and used as a listening post and security guard, said Marine Lt. Col. Robert J. Harper, who's managing the project for the military from Huntsville, Ala.

"We're looking to provide commanders a better ability to see the battlefield and control it," he said.

The vehicles will be "available in all weather, for 24 hours and be tireless and fearless," Harper said.

He said RST's project is the lead military program for development of unmanned ground vehicles, as the spies are called in military parlance.

The earliest the vehicles could go into service would be 1997, he said.

Caro, a former Marine officer and FBI executive, couldn't contain his enthusiasm when explaining that RST, which was formed about six months ago, beat out some of the country's big defense contractors for the job.

"We were going against some guys who have written some sophisticated proposals," he said. "They have two or three times the number of proposal writers that we have employees.

"It's a great dream come true," said Caro, a Howard County resident.

RST has four principals and plans to hire about 12 employees, he said.

General Dynamics, Honeywell and Teledyne Brown Engineering were among the 14 companies bidding for the contract, Harper said.

RST received a $5 million contract to build 14 vehicles -- called surrogate tele-operated vehicles -- that the Marines and Army then will test and evaluate, Caro said.

When the military gives the go-ahead for full-scale development, the contract could be worth $500 million, Caro said. Harper would not confirm that amount, saying the contract would depend on the price for each vehicle and how many the military orders.

The vehicles will cost $100,000 when built in full-scale production, Caro said.

Edward D. Hill, marketing manager for advanced technology at General Dynamics and chairman of an industry group that advises the military on unmanned ground vehicles, said he was "a little bit" surprised that RST won the contract.

But the project manager for RST, Scott D. Myers, has an excellent reputation in the field, said Hill, who is based outside Detroit.

Before coming to RST, Myers worked in the military robotics division of Martin Marietta Corp. in Baltimore, where he developed the precursor to the new vehicle.

Hill said, "He had an excellent track record at Martin Marietta which carries over to his new position."

Martin Marietta and two other companies are subcontractors for the robotic spy project.

Martin Marietta, based in Bethesda, Montgomery County, makes missiles, parts for space shuttles and planes and has an information systems division.

Myers said, "We did our homework. We were No. 1 technically and the lowest cost."

Hill said even though Myers has vast experience, it will be a challenge for him to succeed without the resources of Martin Marietta.

Von Ayre Jennings, who worked under Myers at Martin Marietta, said Myers is taking a risk by striking out on his own.

"He's taking an enormous risk, but there could be an enormous payoff," Jennings said. "Martin Marietta believes robotic technology has matured and that there will be a tremendous market for these systems."

Myers, 35, a Baltimore County resident, said RST wants to create a niche for itself in the commercial robotics field. Robots will be used in the future to flip hamburgers at fast-food restaurants and clean homes, he said.

Even though the company wants to build for private industry, their first military contract is crucial, he said.

"If we fail with this, we could be out of business," Myers said.

Caro and Myers talked about forming their own company while Myers was at Martin Marietta and Caro was in marketing at OAO Corp., an aerospace engineering and information systems company in Greenbelt, Prince George's County.

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