Firm bets that security guard of the future will be a robot

March 11, 1993|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

WESTMINSTER -- President Clinton's intention to help demilitarize the economy is welcome news at Robotic Systems Technology here, where engineers are busy designing the security guard of the future.

The golf-cart-size robotic guard would move around on six balloon tire wheels, directed by its own "brain" -- a handful of electronic circuits -- and might even zap an intruder with a spray of glue to impede his escape. It could roam such commercial facilities as industrial parks, airports and shopping malls -- after hours, 365 days a year, never taking a vacation or requiring medical benefits.

RST's robot guard, which will also come in a smaller model for use in office buildings, is an offshoot of a remote-controlled spy vehicle that the company produces for the U.S and French militaries.

The company has delivered 14 of the robots to the Pentagon for use as forward observers -- replacing soldiers sent to spy on enemy-troop movements. In fact, the FBI has borrowed three of them for use in the standoff with the Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koresh, in Waco, Texas.

The robotic guard is a prime example of what Mr. Clinton has in mind with his promise to release federal money to help companies develop dual-use technology for both military and commercial applications.

Mr. Clinton is scheduled to visit the Westinghouse Electronic Systems complex in Linthicum today to announce details of his ideas.

Dana E. Caro, chairman and a founder of the company, said even relatively small amounts can be a big boost to small companies like his. RST posted sales of $7.5 million last year and employs 70 workers.

Mr. Caro, a former head of the FBI's Baltimore office, said RST has applied for a $2 million grant to help expand the 2-year-old company's scientific and research base. Such a grant, he said, "greatly increases our probability of succeeding."

Although RST hopes eventually to sell the Defense Department up to 10,000 of the robotic guards, Mr. Caro said he believed the commercial market to be much larger -- perhaps 15 times as big.

He predicted, optimistically, that by the end of the century there will not likely be a shopping mall in the country without a robotic security system. Mechanical guards, he said, will be as common in the future as automated teller machines are today.

Scott D. Myers, president of RST, sketched a typical robotic guard mission. The self-directed vehicle would roam an industrial park as large as 4 square miles, checking electronic cards on doors and motion sensors on windows for signs of intruders.

It will have a video camera for "eyes" and an infrared system to see in the dark. There will also be electronic equipment to detect smoke, heat, moisture and, in some cases, radiation.

"If it detects a break-in, the vehicle will turn on a communication system that alerts its supervisor," a person sitting at a TV console at a command center, Mr. Myers said.

At that point, he explained, the supervisor could take control of the vehicle and direct it from his console.

"Whatever the vehicle sees, he sees," Mr. Myers said.

The robot could even be armed with a stun gun to disable an intruder until police arrive, or shoot a spray of glue to hinder an escape.

The Army estimates that it costs about $140,000 a year to train and station human security guards at just one post around the clock. RST envisions a sale price of $100,000 for its robot guard -- considerably less than the $400,000 the current military version costs.

Mr. Caro said that help from the federal government will make it easier for him to turn down Japanese companies that want to invest in RST technology but move production to Japan.

He said RST was contacted by two potential Japanese partners in one recent week alone.

"We would like to keep the operation here," Mr. Caro said. "We would like to create high-quality jobs in Maryland."

The electronic guard is just one example of dual-use technology under development by Maryland defense contractors.

AAI Corp. in Cockeysville is finding a market among fire departments around the country for a shipboard-fire training system it produced for the Navy.

At Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the technology is being used to erect a fire-and-rescue system in a simulated 747 jetliner to train crews in battling engine and cabin fires and in rescuing passengers.

The local Westinghouse division has adapted a radar it developed for the Air Force's C-130 cargo plane for use on commercial jets. The high-image radar can detect wind shear, a condition that can suddenly push a landing plane to the ground. The radar can detect wind shear in time for pilots to interrupt their approach and avoid the hazard.

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