MANCHESTER — Inside an old farmhouse just off Western Avenue and competing for space with his wife’s art studio, Stan Farrell, his father, Bob, and a small team of multitaskers are working on a high-tech way to control unmanned parachutes that has drawn interest and money from both NASA and the Army.

Wizbe Innovations moved to the site a few years ago from the basement and garage of Farrell’s nearby home. The small company is using “smart” materials to create a system expected to allow for much greater control of the speed and direction of unmanned parachutes, such as those used by the military to drop cargo to troops behind enemy lines, or by NASA to bring spacecraft and equipment back to Earth safely.

Controlling the speed and direction of such parachutes is important. For NASA, it could mean reduced cost because equipment such as a rocket returning to Earth could be parachuted safely back to a specific location such as a base, instead of plunging into the ocean.

And for the military, accurate deployment of a parachute toting supplies of food, fuel or even arms, is important especially in a conflict in which missing a target with a supply drop could mean not only soldiers going without needed supplies, but also those supplies falling into the hands of their enemies.

‘GIVING YOUR STUFF TO YOUR ENEMY’

Farrell said the need for improvement in cargo parachute technology was illustrated in Afghanistan several years ago, when the U.S. military would do some 10,000 supply drops by parachute a month. Some were dropped from high elevations –so the planes could avoid being shot – but parachutes without a means of being controlled once they leave the plane could end up 10 or even 20 miles away from the troops meant to receive the supplies.

“So you’re giving your stuff to your enemy,” Farrell said of the problem of inaccurate drops.

Farrell and his father, who are both engineers, said they’d like to be able to drop supplies within 10 to 20 feet of a target.

Technology to control such cargo parachutes already exists but is heavy and expensive and can be difficult to recover.

The technology Wizbe Innovations is developing is light and contained within the fabric of the parachute itself, allowing it to be stuffed into a bag with the parachute, and thus easily recovered during military operations.

NASA recently awarded a $114,000 Small Business Innovative Research Phase 1 grant to help develop the technology for potential use by the space exploring agency, both in current suborbital flights and future returns from space.

Farrell said the company recently collected data by doing small-scale prototype air drops at military sites, has done wind-tunnel testing, and plans to do further testing using kites it can fly in a field at Bob Farrell’s Vassalboro home.

The company’s technology uses wires, which move when sent an electric pulse controlled by computer, to move flaps built into the fabric. Moving the flaps regulates the airflow, allowing the parachute canopy to turn, speed up and slow down.

Shawn Lemelin, process manager, demonstrated the technology on a small bulletin board covered with flaps of various sizes and shapes, each with a set of wires going to them.

Speeding up a parachute could be handy, for example, when parachuting into hostile territory, with the ability to reduce speed important to make the landing softer.

Wizbe Innovations is a material science development group that can help with product fabrication, design analysis, and materials innovations. The company previously developed a personal lowering device for the Air Force that allows parachutists who get caught on a tree to lower themselves to the ground safely.

THE COMPANY’S MOLDING MATERIAL

The company’s main production effort now is for a significantly different product, available at some 1,000 different retail art supply stores nationwide, or directly online at composimold.com.

ComposiMold is a reusable, biodegradable mold-making polymer material used by artists, chefs, hobbyists interested in action figures and models, soap-makers, jewelers, home renovators and others.

The gummy bear-like substance can be heated up and formed in a mold to make anything from chocolate to candles, in custom-made shapes. The mold can be made in the shape of just about any existing item the Composimold can be poured onto.

Production of ComposiMold takes place in the back of the farmhouse, overseen by Dan Cyr. The substance is heated in a row of 55-gallon drums, then cooked for one to four days, depending on which version of the product they’re making. It is then placed in containers of various sizes, selling for roughly between $15 and $50.

They’ve sold about 100,000 pounds of the product so far.

Stan’s mother, Bobbi, also helps with the business, as does Farrell’s wife, Helene Farrar.