Future Spies Could Be Tireless, Fearless And Drink Diesel

Company Hopes Robotic Vehicles Join Army Ranks

January 20, 1991|By Kerry O'Rourke and Erik Nelson | Kerry O'Rourke and Erik Nelson,Staff writers

While his son leads men into combat in the Persian Gulf war, Dana E.Caro's company is building a machine that may someday help keep soldiers out of the line of fire.

The Columbia resident's company is building a six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle that can go 250 miles into enemy territory, spot enemy positions and call in artillery and air strikes -- without a driver.

Although the vehicle has a driver's seat, Caro said the robots are intended for remote-control operation "to keep the soldier out of harm's way from either a bomb or a bullet."

Caro's 24-year-old son,Stephen, does not have the benefit of that kind of protection, however, as commander of an infantry platoon in the Army's 101st Airborne Division based in Saudi Arabia.

Caro said he had hoped to see the robot developed earlier, so troops now in the Persian Gulf could substitute it for human observers.

As Caro listens at home for word about his son, he makes headway in his own battle -- to get the robot built and approved. He and three partners are developing the machine at their company, Robotic Systems Technology Inc., in Hampstead, Carroll County.

Caro, a 6-year resident of the Dorsey Hall neighborhoodin Dorsey's Search village, has been a Marine officer, an FBI executive and last fall managed Charles I. Ecker's campaign for county executive.

He joined OAO Corp. of Greenbelt to help market the company's robotics program, which developed bomb-disposal machines for law enforcement and military use.

"I think it's the emerging technologyfor the 21st century," Caro said of the robotics field.

Although the first of the robot vehicles is six weeks from completion, it willbe at least several years before it is ready for use on the battlefield.

The company is making 14 of the unmanned diesel-powered robotsurveillance vehicles equipped with acoustical sensors and day and night video cameras. Caro said the vehicles are too small to be pickedup by radar and, if disabled, can be ordered to self-destruct.

Soldiers will be able to run the vehicle with a fiber-optic cable from a protected position up to 3 kilometers away. The amphibious vehiclesweigh 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 belifted 10 feet to increase surveillance range.

In the Persian Gulf, for example, the vehicle could be sent to a specific spot and usedas 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.

"We'll have our first one completed before June 1 (this year)," Caro said. The Army and Marine Corps are expected to evaluate the first crop of vehicles before the end of the year.

RST received a $5 million contract to build 14 vehicles -- called surrogate tele-operated vehicles. Caro's robotics marketing got a big boost when the fledgling RST beat out some of the country's bigdefense contractors for the job.

"We were going against some (companies) that have written some sophisticated proposals," Caro said. "They have two or three times the number of proposal writers than we have employees."

RST has four partners 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.

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

Edward D. Hill, marketing manager for advanced technology at General Dynamics and chairman of an industry groupthat advises the military on unmanned ground vehicles, said he was "a little bit" surprised that RST won the contract. One of the keys, he said, was RST's project manager, Scott D. Myers, who previously worked in the military robotics field for Martin Marietta in Baltimore.

Myers, 35, a Baltimore County resident, said RST wants to create aniche for itself in the commercial robotics field.

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.

The company was formed last August as a subsidiary of F & M Machine Corp., which, at the same location, makes parts for space shuttles, satellites, jet engines and other machines.

Since winning the robotic spy contract, RST also has won a contract with Martin Marietta to design a robotic excavator for handlinghazardous wastes for the U.S. Department of Energy, Caro said. RST'spart of the contract is worth $400,000.

The company also is talking with the Veterans Administration about building a robotic work station for quadriplegics. A person would use a voice-activated computerto control an "arm" that could be used for feeding, washing, workingand playing electronic games, he said.

Another project in the works is a security robot that could patrol buildings at night, Caro said.

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