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Waterboro-based company builds firefighter robots to go places where people can’t

Posted Aug. 13, 2012, at 5:57 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 14, 2012, at 10:24 a.m.
Chief engineer Josh Spaulding of Howe and Howe Technologies in Waterboro works on designing a new SWAT team application for the company's remote controlled RS1 vehicle Monday, Aug. 13, 2012.
Chief engineer Josh Spaulding of Howe and Howe Technologies in Waterboro works on designing a new SWAT team application for the company's remote controlled RS1 vehicle Monday, Aug. 13, 2012. Buy Photo
Eric Franzen of Howe and Howe Technologies works on a skid plate for the company's remote controlled RS1 vehicle Monday August 13, 2012.
Eric Franzen of Howe and Howe Technologies works on a skid plate for the company's remote controlled RS1 vehicle Monday August 13, 2012. Buy Photo
Mike and Geoff Howe of Howe and Howe Technologies stand with their unmanned robotic firefighting machine, known as the Thermite, at their headquarters in Waterboro Monday, Aug. 13, 2012.
Mike and Geoff Howe of Howe and Howe Technologies stand with their unmanned robotic firefighting machine, known as the Thermite, at their headquarters in Waterboro Monday, Aug. 13, 2012. Buy Photo
A remote-controlled RS1 vehicle gets put through its paces on an obstacle course outside Howe and Howe Technologies in Waterboro Monday, Aug. 13, 2012.
A remote-controlled RS1 vehicle gets put through its paces on an obstacle course outside Howe and Howe Technologies in Waterboro Monday, Aug. 13, 2012. Buy Photo

WATERBORO, Maine — The nuclear plant meltdowns after Japan’s catastrophic earthquake and resultant tsunamis 17 months ago gave Geoff and Mike Howe pause.

The twin inventors who head the Waterboro-based Howe & Howe Technologies — subject of a popular television show on the Discovery Channel — realized there were more ways their now famous unmanned military vehicles could be used to help keep people out of harm’s way.

“We have technology that could have been used there,” Geoff Howe said. “[Our remote controlled vehicle] could have cleared the area and poured water on those reactors instead of sending those people into those dangerous areas. Those heroes were exposed to radiation and may have shortened lives or have already died.”

Now the Howe brothers, whose expertise has been sought by the Hollywood producers of the upcoming “G.I. Joe” sequel and a “Mad Max” remake, are getting a surge in publicity for a project that isn’t intended to appear on the big — or small — screen.

Using platforms the company originally developed for the U.S. Army, Howe & Howe Tech is building remote-controlled unmanned firefighter robots, which power through nearly any terrain on tank-like treads and can be equipped with anything from a mechanical arm to move people or debris, a camera to provide an advance look around the inside of a burning structure, or a heavy fire hose to douse flames. Or nuclear reactors.

The Howe brothers envision the remote-controlled RS1 vehicle as a potentially important part of firefighting at oil refineries, airports, industrial facilities, dense urban areas and places with potential biohazards, such as at nuclear plants.

“This robot is not designed to replace a firefighter,” Mike Howe said. “It’s a tool.”

Mike Howe said the 1,400-pound RS1 vehicle with a Thermite 2 water blasting attachment could enter a dangerous building and provide a first layer of fire suppression, and likely withstand the collapse of the building if things took a turn for the worse.

He also noted that 60 percent of all firefighter deaths are caused by heart attacks and extreme fatigue, and the unmanned vehicles can lessen the load by dragging hose and doing other heavy work to save firefighters’ energy for other tasks.

“It allows the chiefs to have a better, safer decision-making process,” Mike Howe said.

The brothers say they aim to make the robot affordable — right around $100,000 for the RS1, Geoff Howe said — durable and easy to maintain, and that they’ve sold about 10 of them thus far nationwide.

“We sell them about as fast as we build them,” Mike Howe said.

New firetrucks can cost several hundred thousand dollars, and Geoff Howe said smaller unmanned vehicles sold elsewhere in the country have similarly high costs. He said Howe & Howe Tech is able to control its prices by keeping overhead low, and because the cost of living in Waterboro isn’t as high as it would be if the company facility were located near a bigger city out of state.

Future attachments for the vehicle under development include a fold-out shield array to help cover police SWAT teams moving across an open area.

The team also has developed an adapted tanker truck that can carry two of the RS1 robots and 1,100 gallons of water, and can feature a lead-lined cab where the machine’s operators can work remotely under additional protection from nuclear radiation.

“If we have another nuclear response problem again, shame on us,” Geoff Howe said. “Shame on our governments, shame on our power plants — shame on us.”

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