Robbie gets room to roam Move: OAO Robotics recently relocated to rural Frederick County, where its machines can be field-tested right outside the office.

November 01, 1996|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

IJAMSVILLE -- Actors have Hollywood, investors have Wall Street, extraterrestrials have the New Mexico desert and government contractors have the Washington Beltway.

So why would OAO Robotics pick up and leave its corporate headquarters in Greenbelt for the fields and barns of Frederick County?

Because OAO Robotics has a habit of sending large vehicles -- skid loaders, excavators -- rumbling through the neighborhood with no drivers in them.

While some might argue that Beltway traffic already involves big machines with no brains behind the wheel, Joseph Foley and his co-workers at OAO Robotics say it's easier to test their pilotless rigs out in the country.

OAO Robotics hopes to use its newfound freedom of movement to build itself a niche in the defense industry.

There aren't many companies that build these kinds of contraptions -- remote-controlled rovers that can navigate and map a minefield, bigger machines that can dismantle a pile of chemical weapons with no operator on board -- and those that do tend to have names like Lockheed Martin and overall sales in the billions.

OAO Robotics so far deals with dollar amounts in the hundreds of thousands.

But the company, a unit of a corporation otherwise dedicated to information technology, has a distinct vision of the marketplace role it wants to play.

"We want to be the Ford, Chrysler or whoever of robotics," said Foley, OAO's director of robotics.

"We build things that are meant to go out and get beat up and used not things that are meant to be studied."

Abusable robots. Strictly speaking, robot isn't even the right term for these machines.

They're really "remote controlled, teleoperated systems," which means a human controls them from a distance with a joystick and radio signals.

Foley is a sandy-haired 35-year-old electrical engineer who runs a shop of about 20 tinkerers in a small business complex near Ijamsville.

The outfit left the OAO Corp. home office in Greenbelt in July, but already it has made a mark on the Frederick County countryside.

Antennas freckle the roof, and across the street, in the middle of a rolling autumn-brown farm field, is an incongruous metal radio tower.

Foley said he worked out a deal with the farmer to borrow a field once in a while for robot testing. This is what he could never do in Greenbelt: fire up what is basically a small, unmanned backhoe and send it over to dig, blow and hack in the dirt.

The TODS -- Teleoperated Ordnance Disposal System -- is a skid loader stripped of its hydraulics and outfitted with remote controls. Technicians control it with a pair of joysticks on a metal box slung from the shoulders like a peanut vendor's tray. They can see where it's going through video eyes, and track its position via Global Positioning System satellites.

"It's scary when you fire it up," said Foley, who calls the machine "the beast," though colleague Walt Siering said the TODS is nicknamed Miss Piggy.

The job the machine is designed for is about as scary as they come -- finding and disposing of land mines, discarded weapons or environmental disasters. Humans can stand up to a mile away from the danger and operate the machine, Foley said.

It can use its "bush-hog" attachment to clear brush, compressed air to blow dirt away from a mine without touching it, a backhoe arm to dig the mine up and grippers to carry the mine away.

Developed with the help of about $500,000 in federal research funding, the TODS is one of several devices the company is hoping to market for military, law enforcement and environmental cleanup uses.

Another, the Remote Controlled Reconnaissance Monitor, is a little 100-pound minefield scout that the Navy approved this summer for general use by the military. OAO has sold six of the units so far, at roughly $200,000 each.

"This is still a small part of our business, comparatively speaking," OAO Corp. Vice President Henry Clarks said. "But we're trying to move these products along, and we think they will bear fruit."

OAO Corp., the parent company, was founded in Greenbelt in 1973 by Cecile D. Barker, a former whiz-kid scientist at NASA who worked on Orbiting Astronomical Observatory satellites. The privately held company now has about 3,000 employees in more than 60 offices worldwide and annual sales of more than $160 million, Clarks said.

After doing extensive work with NASA and the Department of Defense for most of its history, OAO Corp. is now more focused on providing information systems and aerospace engineering to commercial markets, Clarks said -- though the robotics division still concentrates on government work.

Foley said his technicians have compartmentalized the robotics equipment to the point that he could take almost any vehicle and rig it up for remote control. That lets OAO tailor robots for individual needs. They have rigged a giant John Deere excavator for environmental work, and even a powerboat for an undisclosed government agency that wanted to tow something secret.

"It's every kid's dream," Foley said, "of playing with toys for the rest of their life."

Pub Date: 11/01/96

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