SENTRIES THAT DON'T SLEEP Westminster firm to develop robots for the U.S. Army


F&M; Manufacturing Inc. thinks it can make obsolete the tens of thousands of sentries who protect the country's military bases and secrets.

The Westminster-based company has won a $6.6 million contract to develop two fully autonomous robotic security guards for the Army.

While these guards of the future look more like a golf carts than Beetle Bailey or RoboCop, they could pack the fighting force of a Rambo.

The first robot is expected to be delivered to the Army's Development and Engineering Center at Fort Belvoir, Va., within two years, said Dana E. Caro, the former head of the FBI's Baltimore office who founded F&M; in 1991 and serves at its chairman and chief executive.

"It will not be armed," Mr. Caro said, "but it could be. It will depend on what the customer wants." It could come with a machine gun or a stun gun to disable an intruder until the military police arrive. Another option would be a spray gun to shoot a spray of glue to hinder an intruder's escape.

The prototype military guards will move about on six balloon tire wheels under the direction of its own "brain" -- a handful of electronic circuits. A small television camera will serve as its eyes.

Under terms of the contract, the robot guard will be required to navigate within a 22-square-mile area, avoid obstacles and detect crawling intruders from a distance of more than 100 yards.

The Army plans to test the robot in patrolling ammunition supply areas, warehouses and office parks, air bases and dock areas.

To curtail "insider" theft, Mr. Caro said, the robot will also have the ability to "to keep a running tab on everything going in and out of a building."

The robots will be built by F&M;'s Robotic Systems Technology division, with assistance from David Sarnoff Research Center of Princeton, N.J..

While the contract represents a significant amount of new business for F&M;, which posted sales of about $10 million last year, Mr. Caro said it could be the first step to something much bigger.

The military is looking at the possibility of acquiring up to 10,000 robotic guards.

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. Mr. Caro thinks Robotic Systems can supply a robot guard that will work seven days a week (without coffee breaks or vacations) for less than $100,000 each.

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