Moving at "creep speed" amid a business lunch crowd yesterday, the miniature tank-like machine aroused little curiosity. Diners barely noticed as the contraption passed, unaware that it was monitoring temperature, humidity and air quality.
An Army engineer operated the unit remotely, occasionally raising its arm above the diners to get a better view. After reviewing the data, he pronounced the atmosphere on the patio at Harford Community College safe -- even healthy -- for diners.
"Oxygen is at 20.9 percent, right where it's supposed to be," said Shawn Funk, a mechanical engineer with the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground. "Temperature is 88 degrees with 50 percent humidity. There is no nerve gas or gamma radiation."
Army officials invited 400 government contractors and other businesses to the daylong event and gave demonstrations of the latest defense technology. But the main purpose was to encourage businesses to consider using APG facilities -- labs, test courses, wind tunnels -- to test technologies as part of a "technology transfer" program that Army has conducted for years.
"People see a military installation and are intimidated," said David J. Shaffer, deputy to the commander of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, one of many agencies housed at the base in Harford County. "At these events, it's all about awareness. We try to bring the community together to get an understanding of what goes on. This is an opportunity to do business with us."
At the 90-year-old base, which will grow significantly over the next five years because of the nationwide military realignment, the Army has long encouraged partnerships with small businesses. The transfer program was mandated by Congress 25 years ago to promote the sharing of knowledge between government, private industry and academia, officials said.
Researchers at the base tested compounds that counter biological agents for Nina Lamba, president of CCL Biomedical Inc. in Havre de Grace.
"They are really helping us," she said. "You never know what's behind the gate."
Sau Lan Tang Staats is another business owner familiar with the potential of the program. Army researchers helped the president of an Elkton nanochip manufacturer over the past couple of years with testing and perfecting a small plastic nozzle that sprays mist in precise droplets. The device proved adaptable to military use, and Staats has since been able to market the product to pharmaceutical companies.
"The Army tested the spray on various surfaces and in a wind tunnel, and we were able to determine the agent's [efficacy]," she said.
Yesterday's gathering also was a chance for deal-making, said Renee M. Winsky, executive director of the Maryland Technical Development Corp., a quasi-state agency that co-sponsored the event.
"We want technology out of the lab and into the private market," Winsky said. "We want entrepreneurs to see something of interest today and talk with researchers. We want deals and we can help fund projects."
And then there was the whiz-bang technology. The robot can maneuver into confined spaces and test the air for chemical and biological agents. The EPA was so impressed with the robot that it is now developing a similar system. The technology could also prove valuable to fire departments, and a vacuum cleaner manufacturer is testing its capabilities, officials said.
Other equipment on display included a mine-proof truck and a biological-detection vehicle that featured an air-conditioned, onboard shelter.
"We can deploy this equipment to the Army around the world, wherever there is a biological threat," said David R. Whitcraft, an engineer with the research and development team.
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