Royalton Firm Gets Big Contract for De-mining Robot

Front Page / Dec. 25, 2003 12:00am EST

Every year computers get smaller while making impressive gains in power and capabilities.

The same technological rule clearly applies to the robotic de-mining tractors being developed by Applied Research Associates at its offices in Royalton and in other states across the U.S.

Sen. Patrick Leahy and his wife Marcelle were in Royalton last week to inspect the latest version of ARA’s de-mining device, which is being developed for the Army under contract.

Leahy, who had stopped at ARA one year ago to announce a second, multi-million-dollar contract for the de-mining project, was back last week to announce a third defense department contract, this one for $4.1 million.

Thanks in large part to de-mining-project grants, ARA last year expanded its Waterman Road offices and hired 20-some employees over the past year or two.

Another expansion in Royalton is in the works. Last Tuesday. Jim Shinn announced plans to build and open a new 30,000-square-foot facility in Royalton next year. Shinn is manager of ARA’s "automation and geosciences sector" in Royalton.

Another 10 employees might be hired next year, and a five-year plan projects a total of 120-150 workers in Royalton, he said.

This Year’s Model

The prototype demining tractor displayed by ARA last week was smaller than last year’s version. A control box, housed in a bulky console last year, now fits in a suitcase-like box. Both the senator and his wife tried their hands at guiding the tractor though a little maze, using the remote control.

ARA’s John Wetzel, project manager for ARA’s Force Protection De-mining Device, as it’s called, also showed the Leahys the mine-detection component of the project. Still under development, it’s a car-trailer-sized framework that houses an array of standard metal detectors and another array of ground-penetrating radar.

ARA’s software engineers are working on ways to "fuse" the data from the two systems—metal detectors and radar, Wetzel said. Combined data will mean quicker detection of buried landmines, with fewer "false alarms" for random pieces of metal that might be in the ground.

The array of detectors, now too bulky to be attached to the front end of the robotic tractor, will be reduced in size over the next year, Wetzel said.

While employees at ARA’s Royalton office have been working on the detection system, he added, their counterparts in Colorado are developing a "propellant torch system" to neutralize land mines once they’re located. The radio-operated torch, also to be mounted on the tractor, will be able to burn through the mine casing and then ignite its contents, he said.

For armed forces in the field, it was noted, this will offer a quieter and safer means of neutralizing mines, without detonating them.

ARA’s Jim Shinn gave the Leahys and their entourage an overview of the company.

A research and manufacturing firm founded in 1979, ARA now has offices in 32 states and employs about 850, with 59 working at the firm’s Waterman Road facility, Shinn said.

The firm, with both research and manufacturing sectors, has enjoyed a phenomenal 20% annual growth, with 2003 sales at about $120 million, he said. About 70% of their work is on government contract; another significant portion revolves around the "penetrometer," a sophisticated probe used to analyze ground pollution and other indicators at great depths.

Other Projects

In addition to its de-mining project, ARA is working on several other intriguing government-funded projects at its various offices.

For the new Homeland Security office, ARA is developing radiation detectors at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Other ARA employees are developing devices to detect chemical and biological hazards that might be used by terrorists, Shinn said.

David Timian, head of ARA’s manufacturing division, noted that the firm is also developing a radio-operated, mini-surveillance plane. The bird-sized, battery-operated device could be used by troops in the field, he said.

Sen. Leahy noted that the ARA’s de-mining project enjoys widespread support in Congress.

"Everyone realizes this is not a bipartisan issue," the senator said.

Leahy is the leading U.S. official promoting a world-wide ban of landmines. He has authored several laws toward that goal and played a key role in advancing a new international treaty banning landmines, which the U.S. has not yet signed.

He and his wife have also established a fund to assist landmine victims. Every year, landmines kill or maim an estimated 20,000 people, most of them civilians.

By Sandy Cooch

Return to top