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Inspired by Soldier Son, Father Develops Military Robots

May 14, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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After the death of his son in the Iraq war, the father of a soldier formed a company that manufactures military robots. Tom Bearden reports.

JIM LEHRER: Now, using technology to save lives on the battlefield. NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden has our Science Unit story.

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: In a garage outside of Bedford, Massachusetts, two men from Black-I Robotics work on putting together what looks like a large Tonka Truck.

But this is no toy: It’s Brian Hart’s version of a robot for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hart, an engineer and former executive of several telecommunication companies, and his brother, Richard, are developing low-cost modular ground robots with one thing in mind: saving lives.

His son, John, who had been deployed to Iraq, was his inspiration.

BRIAN HART, CEO and Founder, Black-I Robotics: So, you know, in 2003, my son calls me — and a week before he was killed — and says that they’re being ambushed on roads, they don’t have any armor on their vehicles, and he just wanted to let me know that, if we could get anything for them, it would save lives. The next call we get was the military at our door at 6 a.m. telling us he was dead.

Armored Humvees saved lives

TOM BEARDEN: Army Private First Class John Hart was killed in an ambush outside of Kirkuk.

ALMA HART, Mother of Soldier: These are important things of John's. This is his Purple Heart and his Bronze Star for bravery. And this it the flag from his casket in Arlington. This was given to us at the funeral.

TOM BEARDEN: Images and memorabilia of him fill his parent's home. His mother, Alma, showed us a table of pictures commemorating his short life.

ALMA HART: And then, you know, we've got the picture of John from his graduation day at basic. And, you know, it pains me so much to see that, because he was so proud on that day.

TOM BEARDEN: After getting the news of his death and how it happened, the Harts went on a mission to get more armored Humvees and body armor to the troops.

He spoke with the NewsHour in 2004.

BRIAN HART: He ran out of ammunition. And their vehicle had no armor or protection, and so they were essentially shot up in a vehicle with no doors or side-paneling.

Seeing robots' potential

TOM BEARDEN: After months of lobbying, the Harts, with the help of Sen. Ted Kennedy and others, succeeded in getting more heavily armored Humvees to Iraq.

ALMA HART: This is a picture that was sent to us from Iraq. And he was over there at the time when these armored Humvees started showing up. And this was one that was hit by a -- hit a roadside bomb.

And you can see it's all wrecked up, but the guys inside were OK. And thanks to Brian and Alma Hart and Sen. Kennedy and everyone else who cares for our well-being, you have saved lives.

TOM BEARDEN: But Hart didn't stop there. He went on to fight for better ways to treat bleeding wounds on the battlefield. Then, in 2005, a news story triggered his current focus on robots.

BRIAN HART: There was a CNN crew with this small unit. And it was told to push a car bomb off of a road with this armored Humvee. Both vehicles blew up. The armor held, and the lance corporal survived, but that was the point where we realized that what we could do with robotics could certainly be applicable to saving lives.

Limitations of robotic systems

TOM BEARDEN: Black-I Robotics, with just two employees besides Hart, are building robots that can defuse IEDs. They can also use TV cameras and other sensors to act as sentries, warning troops of imminent danger. Military weapons designer Pierre Sprey says there are limitations to such remote-controlled systems.

PIERRE SPREY, Former Military Weapons Designer: I personally did a long series of experiments on television as a battlefield reconnaissance medium a while ago when I was working at Grumman. And it's a very shaky way to see the kind of things you need to see. The human eye is far faster reacting and far more discriminating.

TOM BEARDEN: Hart is developing many different applications for his robotic system. For example, he showed us how his basic robot can be fitted with sensors that can detect where sniper fire is coming from.

BRIAN HART: Well, as the sound wave of the shot goes by, these little microphones measure where the shot came from by the speed of sound and can direct the robot or the operator to the source of the shot.

A few months ago, we experimented with mounting a laser on it from Boeing that would essentially blind the shooter as soon as the shot was fired. I mean, we can deploy these for about between $50,000 and $100,000 very successfully, and that includes about a $20,000 radio.

So we're in the zone. We're already there. This would compare to units that would be in the $250,000 to $600,000 starting range and higher.

But the idea is, we want it affordable and robust. We want it to be fieldable by lance corporals and PFCs. And to do that, we know we have to make it simple to use and very cost-effective.

Simplicity is guiding principle

TOM BEARDEN: Simplicity is one of Hart's guiding principles, right down to the tools needed to fix the machine if something goes wrong.

BRIAN HART: World War II was fought with tools like this. And why not make this a practical scenario for this war?

TOM BEARDEN: Black-I Robotics got its first contract last year and has now sold several devices to the Air Force, as well as to port security contractors in the United States.