Maine machinists unveil ‘the future’ of SWAT with unmanned police tank in aftermath of Boston bombs

Posted April 18, 2013, at 6:04 p.m.

SANFORD, Maine — The celebrated unveiling of what co-creator Mike Howe called “the future of tactical advance” was initially planned for Boston this week alongside Massachusetts State Police officials.

Monday’s twin bomb explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon complicated the logistics of that plan considerably. But the terror attacks, which injured nearly 180 people and killed three, highlighted the need for a device like Howe & Howe Technologies’ SWAT BOT, Howe said.

Instead of in Boston, the introduction of the remote-controlled, shielded, multipurpose mini-tank — an adaptation of Mike and Geoff Howe’s firefighting RS1 vehicle — took place Thursday morning with members of the Southern Maine Special Response Team at the Sanford Police Department.

“This [bombing] has made it more paramount that we release this technology to domestic law enforcement,” Mike Howe said.

Howe & Howe Technologies shot into the public view with its famous Ripsaw unmanned tank and 2010 reality show on the Discovery Channel, and has stayed in the limelight with prominent appearances of its gear in Hollywood blockbusters like this spring’s “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.”

The Howe brothers cut their teeth on projects for the U.S. military, creating all-terrain tanks that could be controlled from a distance and provide cover for American soldiers on the ground in hostile territory.

Mike Howe said his company, which works out of a 48,000-square-foot facility in Waterboro, has been working to perfect a version of that machine for domestic public safety uses for “a couple of years.”

For Thursday’s unveiling, the SWAT BOT ran through two demonstrations, the first of which involved a team of Special Weapons And Tactics police responders following the heavily shielded robot toward an actor portraying an uncooperative gunman.

The mini-tank’s spread of Dyneema armor shields gave the gunman no angle to fire at the approaching police. Geoff Howe said the state-of-the-art material weighs 2.4 pounds per square foot and can withstand high-powered rifle shots, whereas the half-inch plate armor hand-shields often carried by police into standoff situations weighs about 20 pounds per square foot.

In a second demonstration, Mike Howe drove the SWAT BOT remotely, navigating through the use of an HD video camera affixed to the robot, toward a backpack intended to represent an explosive.

“In the case of an explosive, this allows us to get close to that device and gain a tactical advantage,” said Sanford Police Sgt. Jason Champlin.

“This robot has been blast-tested,” said Mike Howe. “It has been shot at.”

The SWAT BOT can be equipped, Swiss Army Knife-like, with a number of attachments, ranging from a robotic arm for more delicate work, to a battering ram-style “doorbuster,” to a lowered spearhead for puncturing car tires, among other things.

“If a door is barricaded or obstructed in any way, this will handle it,” Champlin said.

The robot is also armed with an array of lights blasting 16,000 lumens worth, intended in part to blind an assailant in a dark environment.

“When you’re behind this shield, you can see as clearly as if it’s daytime,” Mike Howe said. “If you’re in front of those lights, it’s disorienting.”

The Thursday media event was held in part to allow the Howe brothers to make the case that, despite government budget cuts at all levels seemingly nationwide, law enforcement groups should put a priority on purchasing the SWAT BOT.

Mike Howe said that because the basic research and development that went into building the SWAT BOT was absorbed in previous military machines like the Ripsaw, the brothers are able to keep the sale price of the domestic version down at around $100,000 per unit.

But he said federal, state and local law enforcement agencies would likely have to pay $250,000 to $500,000 to buy any other remote-controlled explosives response equipment.

Plus, he said, “How much does it cost when an officer goes down?”

Mike Howe said that in addition to the obvious emotional cost, if a responder is shot in the arm and misses two years of work recovering, it could cost his or her department $500,000 to $1 million in medical insurance costs.

“Some of this technology has really not hit the domestic market,” Geoff Howe said. “This is the latest and greatest technology. This is the future of tactical advance. Within the next five or 10 years, these will be used by law enforcement all over the world, and we just happen to be starting right here in Maine.”