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7/7/2008
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Son's Death In Iraq Drives Father To Build Life-Saving Robot

Currently in its fourth iteration, the LandShark is built largely from off-the-shelf components, making it relatively inexpensive to manufacture and easy to repair.


The LandShark Robot
(click image
for larger view)


The LandShark Robot
Black-I Robotics expects to ship its LandShark robot to Iraq this year to protect the buddies of the company founder's fallen son.
Photo by Black-I Robotics

It's called the LandShark, and the shopping cart-sized robot is a memorial to a young U.S. soldier killed in Iraq whose father is convinced the device can be effective in thwarting at least some of the explosive attacks that are aimed at U.S. forces in that war-torn country.

When Army Pfc. John Hart was killed in a 2003 ambush, his grief-stricken father, Brian Hart, decided to channel his heartache and anger into finding a way to help U.S. troops, who lacked proper armor and other protection.

"He asked me to help him," Brian Hart told The Associated Press, recalling a call he got from his son in Iraq. "Get us body armor and vehicular armor," the son requested.

"He thought he'd be killed on the road and in an unarmored Humvee," the father continued. "And a week to the day later, he was."

The elder Hart's solution was to create Black-I Robotics, a company that develops relatively inexpensive unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) aimed at combating the ever-more-effective and deadly improvised explosive devices that have caused the majority of casualties among U.S. military personnel in Iraq.

"The $300 million in UGVs that the U.S. purchased in 2007 are ineffective against these new weapons for the simple reason that the UGVs cannot reach [them] to disarm them," said Hart.

Black-I's solution is the LandShark, which is simplicity itself. The platform, currently in its fourth iteration, is built largely from off-the-shelf components, making it relatively inexpensive to manufacture and easy to repair.

"It's a very simple platform that can be repaired quickly," said Black-I VP Robert Hughes in an interview Monday. "The LandShark can be quickly repaired. Nothing has to be shipped back to the plant" in Tyngsborough, Mass.

Last week, the company announced it had been awarded an $800,000 government contract to develop its UGV platform further. Hughes noted that three LandShark units already are being tested -- one by the bomb squad at Boston's Logan Airport, another at a U.S. Marine Corps test facility, and a third at Sandia National Laboratories.

Hughes said there are some 500 bomb squads in municipal and law enforcement units in the United States, and the company thinks its UGVs could fit the bill for bomb squads seeking to examine or defuse explosives. The Sandia partnership is examining how various software programs and peripherals can operate with the Black-I UGV. "This could help us get to commercial markets faster," said Hughes. "It can give us a leg up on the competition."

With a goal of costing less than half the price of other land-roving robots and continuing to drive down costs, the company expects its UGVs will be helped by its strategy of "going all digital" while other robotics developers are likely to continue to rely on analog technology for their robots, Hughes said.

In receiving the $800,000 contract from the government's Technical Support Working Group, the company acknowledged the assistance of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy in helping line up the contract. "Kennedy has been a huge advocate," said Hughes.

The company expects to have its first LandShark in Iraq by the end of the year.

Hart, who is an MBA graduate of the University of Texas, left an executive position at a pharmaceutical company to start Black-I Robotics.

It's often said that necessity is the mother of invention, but as far as Hart is concerned, it was the tragic loss of a beloved son that's driving the inventing at Black-I Robotics.

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