WATERBORO, Maine — The big tank comes roaring out of nowhere, flying through the air, helping the good guys do big battle with the bad guys.
The movie’s called “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” and it’s in theaters now.
And that unstoppable tank?
It’s made in Waterboro by Howe and Howe Technologies.
Brothers Mike and Geoff Howe and their crew took the Ripsaw, an unmanned, remote-control tank they developed a few years ago for use in military applications, and adapted it for manned operation specifically for the movie.
The folks who developed the film came knocking on the Howe brothers’ door a couple of years ago.
“They wanted to keep it real,” rather than relying heavily on computer graphics, Geoff Howe said. “We had the Ripsaw … so we used the existing technology — demilitarized.”
The brothers paused Monday to talk about the movie, and about a couple of new robotic, remote-controlled tracked vehicles they’ve developed, designed to help firefighters and police officers deal with difficult and dangerous situations.
Geoff is CEO of the company that he and his twin brother, Mike, the company president, started in a North Berwick garage back in the early 2000s. From there, the fledgling company moved to Eliot, and then to Waterboro in 2009, where they operate in about 48,000 square feet. Their crew includes 20 to 30 people and can expand to 50, depending on the flow of military contracts. Along the way, they starred in a popular television show, “Black Ops Brothers: Howe and Howe Technologies,” which aired on the Discovery channel. There are other movies showcasing their work on the horizon, too, including the upcoming remake of “Mad Max.”
Even while the movies are a draw, the brothers and their crew are busy designing and manufacturing real-world vehicles for real-world applications — and it’s still good guys against bad guys, or at least bad situations.
One of the more recent inventions is the Thermite, a remote-controlled, robotic-tracked vehicle designed go where firefighters shouldn’t, equipped with a multi-directional hose that can deliver 600 gallons of water a minute. There’s the RS1 SWAT Bot, designed to provide police officers with protection and a tactical response to situations such as a hostage crisis where someone is heavily armed, holed up in a house and threatening mayhem. The SWAT Bot provides a ballistic shield, and can be equipped to punch in a door, if need be, or move a vehicle that’s in the way — all remotely.
In developing the Thermite and the SWAT Bot, the Howe brothers are using the technology they first developed for military applications and creating new tools designed for first responders. The Thermite gets an endorsement from R. David Paulison, a former FEMA director, U.S. Fire Administrator and Miami-Dade fire chief who is also a partner with Global Emergency Solutions, a consulting firm that includes emergency and crisis management.
“This new, innovative, remote-controlled firefighting vehicle has the potential to reduce firefighting injuries and fatalities,” Paulison said in Howe and Howe Technologies’ promotional material. “Whether tank farm fires, hazardous materials skills or radioactive incidents, this vehicle can easily maneuver to mitigate the incident while keeping our firefighters out of harm’s way.”
The SWAT Bot costs about $95,000, which is far less, the brothers point out, than the human and financial costs associated with injuries or death.
Tested in coordination with Massachusetts State Police, the brothers said the SWAT Bot was a hit.
“We did simulations. They loved it — and then they really moved it,” said Mike Howe.
Both the Thermite and SWAT Bot are modular units, dubbed RS1 (for robotics solution) that can be adapted for a number of applications, including disaster recovery, logistics and transport and more, along with the firefighting and tactical applications.
Geoff Howe pointed to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan that followed the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.
“There were Japanese workers going into radioactive areas. We had the technology to assist,” he said, pointing to the robotic vehicles that have the ability reach and do tasks inside a nuclear plant without exposing humans to risks. “But there was no infrastructure to support a response. We have the technology to respond robotically and safely.”
Both the Howes said Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King have been “tremendous” in their support for the vehicles that Howe and Howe Technologies produces, though the men acknowledged the current sequester situation presents challenges.
As for “GI Joe: Retaliation,” the men knew they’d need at least 550 horsepower for the tank, so — they grinned simultaneously as Geoff said it — they built the machine with 800 horsepower for good measure.
The tank had to perform like a sports car, and it does, said Mike Howe.
“It’s very agile,” he said.
As it turned out, Mike Howe became the stunt driver for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who starred in the movie along with Bruce Willis.
“The Rock has a stunt double, and he was slated to be the driver,” said Geoff Howe, but plans changed after he suggested that Mike show the stuntman some tank-driving techniques.
A successful 40 mph drift sideways and then into a river convinced the director that Mike Howe should handle the tank for the duration of the film.
“It was really neat and fun to see how a major motion picture is made,” Mike Howe said.
And of course, their tank wasn’t merely any old vehicle driven by Johnson — it’s the “hero vehicle” of the movie, which is showing now in theaters throughout the state. And if you wondered, well, Hasbro is marketing the “GI Joe: Retaliation” “Tread Ripper” toy, aimed at youngsters 4 years old and older.