Robots succeed in trials


WESTMINSTER -- The robotic spies were just scouts on paper almost two years ago. Now they've been tested in the desert, and they work.

The all-terrain vehicles were made by Robotics Systems Technology (RST), a company founded in Hampstead in 1990, and tested by soldiers and Marines in California last spring.

A videotape made during the monthlong test exercise at Fort Hunter Liggett in March shows one of the camouflaged vehicles being maneuvered over hills and through water and brush.

The robots -- operated remotely with fiber-optic cables -- weigh about 1,000 pounds and are 46 to 52 inches tall, 51 inches wide and 108 inches long.

They are unmanned, and designed to be sent into battle areas on surveillance missions.

For now, the 14 vehicles are lined up in the shop at RST, a division of F&M; Manufacturing Inc., at the Air Business Park.

RST President Scott D. Myers, a former Martin Marietta Corp. employee who helped found the company, was in California for the test. The work was grueling, he said, but it was impressive to see nine of the vehicles in action.

The Army was pleased with the vehicles, which took 14 months to build and were delivered on time and at cost, said Dana E. Caro, a former Marine and FBI executive who is president of F&M; Manufacturing. The contract was for $5 million.

Marine Lt. Col. Robert J. Harper, who managed the project for the military from Huntsville, Ala., called the company's efforts "superlative" in a May letter to Mr. Myers. The colonel said he appreciated the "technical expertise and enthusiasm" the company provided.

After RST makes some minor modifications as a result of the initial trials, the robots will be tested again next March, when soldiers and Marines use them on alternating days during a three-month trial, Mr. Myers said.

RST and a Martin Marietta team won a $270,000 contract to study the vehicles that will be used by the military, Mr. Myers said. The 14 that RST made are surrogates. The military eventually wants 2,000 vehicles, he said.

In addition to robotic spies, F&M; employees are making parts for space shuttles, jet engines and high-tech medical instruments, among other things.

Customers include Black and Decker Inc., Sweetheart Cup Corp., Bendix Corp. and the Goddard Space Flight Center.

F&M; Machine is a machine shop and the second division of F&M; Manufacturing. The company moved from Hampstead to the Air Business Park in July and more than doubled its space.

"We've had to subcontract work out, we're so busy," Mr. Myers said of the machine shop side of the business.

The company hired 15 more employees in the last year and a half and could hire 20 more within the next year. The company has long-term contract proposals pending that could double the size of the machine shop business in a year, Mr. Myers said.

L The two divisions employ 55 full-time people, said Mr. Caro.

Sales for both divisions were about $4.5 million in 1990 and are expected to be about $8 million this year, said Edward K. Mottern, president of F&M; Machine.

The divisions are about the same size, Mr. Myers said. About 60 percent of the company's work is defense and government-related.

The company grew out of F&M; Machine Corp., a business founded in Reisterstown by Mr. Mottern and Peter Franken in 1976.

Mr. Mottern said he's pleased with the growth the robotics work has brought and happy the machine shop business did well during the recession.

RST will continue to develop different uses for robotic vehicles. Engineers are working on a $700,000 Defense Department contract to develop vehicles that could repair craters in bombed runways, Mr. Myers said.

The company also would like to make sorting equipment for the U.S. Postal Service and unmanned vehicles that would replace security guards at malls and other buildings.

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