Tripling the size of a General Dynamics plant in Westminster will mean an expanded work force.

Robotics' task - create jobs

August 10, 2005|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Bouncing across the stubble of a Carroll County farm field, the khaki-colored vehicle looked like a jeep on an off-road jaunt - except it had no windows or driver.

Nevertheless, it slowed when it encountered a concrete wall and then - using robotic sensors encased on a revolving white cylinder on its roof - it deftly maneuvered around the obstacle and continued on its way.

Designers of the high-tech vehicle hope it will just as nimbly maneuver around battlefields of the future, detecting and avoiding obstacles and relaying information to soldiers a safe distance away.

It and several other robotic vehicles were put through their paces yesterday at the Westminster facility of General Dynamics Robotic Systems, which has obtained a $230 million contract to develop the technology for the Pentagon.

To accomplish the work, the company broke ground yesterday on a $10 million, 150,000-square-foot expansion that will triple the size of the Westminster facility and add 135 jobs to the 400-employee work force.

"This is way beyond remote control," said Chuck Shoemaker, a consultant for the Army's robotics research effort who attended the demonstration. "The systems on the ground now require full-time control from one soldier and another soldier watching his back. This new technology allows a soldier to pay attention to the immediate surroundings for his own survival and not spend a lot of time guiding a robot."

An unmanned vehicle can drive to a location, set up an observation point, take pictures of the terrain and send them back to base camp. It can also recognize a target and react to it.

The Westminster plant will be involved in the development and demonstration phase of the robotics technology, "maturing it so that it is ready to go into production," said Scott Myers, president of General Dynamics Robotic Systems.

Once the robotics are tested and proved, contractors will vie for the chance to produce them, Myers said.

"We are focused on making this equipment rugged, reliable and affordable, and useful to the soldier in the field," Myers said.

The jeep, for example, monitored its space to figure its way around the concrete barrier placed in the way after its route was programmed.

The robotic equipment can determine if a ditch is too deep to cross, identify hills and brush and differentiate, in the dark, between asphalt and water.

"These vehicles can deal with a lot of stuff and not bother the soldier with any of it," said Mark Del Giorno, vice president for engineering at the Westminster plant. "This information supplements what the soldier already knows and allows him to make better plans ahead of time."

Analysts say the technology holds great promise.

"These devices have great potential to help our soldiers," Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer and defense analyst, said in a phone interview. "They can defuse a booby trap, look for armed people in hiding and relay information by remote control. By helping our men and women on the ground, they basically can keep our soldiers alive."

The Army has lagged behind the Navy and Air Force in automation, said John Pike, who operates Global Security, a defense policy Web site.

"About the only way to automate the Army is through robots," Pike said in a phone interview. "This could be the biggest thing to hit the military since the internal combustion engine. Initially, robots will drive trucks, but down the road, you could give them guns and train them in the Army way."

But it will be several years before the equipment is available for combat. Greg Wilcox, a retired Army officer, Vietnam veteran and sometime-critic of Pentagon policies, cautioned against putting all efforts into robotics.

While there is a need for long-term development, Wilcox said, unmanned vehicles are too far into the future to help today's combat soldiers.

"We have to go low-tech as well as high-tech to protect soldiers. Our focus has to be on helping soldiers right now so that these kids are not getting blown up every day by roadside bombs," Wilcox said.

Eventually, the new technology being developed in Westminster will be retrofitted to existing vehicles and will enable long convoys of unmanned tanks to survey the land, carry supplies and provide intelligence, company officials said.

"The idea is to take this technology and militarize it," said Shoemaker, who said the Army is spending nearly $1 billion on research and development of robotics. "We can use the same core technology to control a robotic mule or a tank."

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the Republican vice chairman of the House's Small-Business Committee, spoke at yesterday's groundbreaking and said that the company is well-positioned to compete for additional military contracts.

The facility got its start in 1991 when a few engineers launched F&M Manufacturing in Hampstead, hoping to produce high-quality, low-cost technology, said Myers, one of the founders. In 1993, the company moved to its Westminster location along Route 97, near the Carroll County Regional Airport.

General Dynamics, a $20 billion-a-year defense contractor based in Falls Church, Va., acquired the company in 1997 and it has since become a world leader in tactical autonomous robotics.

The company's expansion is a boon for Carroll County, said Lawrence F. Twele, director of economic development.

"This was a small, family-owned machine shop that, through good management and General Dynamics' acquisition, has grown into a world-class facility," Twele said. "It is bringing good, high-end engineering and manufacturing jobs that we have the work force to fill. Keeping our workers employed in this county is what it is all about."

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