March 13, 2010

A PASSION THAT COULD SAVE LIVES

NOEL K

— By . GALLAGHER

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff photographer... Monday, October 27, 2008...Twin brothers Mike (left) and Jeff Howe are creating remote-controlled tank-like vehicles for the government at their business, Howe and HoweTechnologies in Eliot. This model, currently under construction, is the second generation prototype of a manned vehicle called the "Badge-R" which is being developed for the Las Vegas Police Swat team.

click image to enlarge

Staff Writer

ELIOT — Mike and Geoffrey Howe are basically a couple of backyard mechanics -- who make small tanks.

Growing up, the twin brothers from Lebanon were always fooling around with gadgets and gizmos. Now 34 years old, they've turned their childhood fascination into Howe and Howe Technologies, a 12-person operation that just landed its third round of military funding for ''Ripsaw,'' a remote-controlled tank that can go 60 mph.

The tank is run with a joy stick and pedals by an operator using a computer screen. The U.S. military is interested in how it might be used as an offensive weapon or a rescue vehicle to take soldiers off the battlefield.

The project started as a lark, as did building what the brothers say is the world's smallest tank -- now sold to West Coast law enforcement agencies for use by SWAT teams -- and a subterranean rover for use in coal mines.

''We don't do this for a customer. We say, 'Let's just do this because it's never been done before,''' said Mike Howe, who handles the engineering duties. ''We have a passion to build.''

Mike Howe said he started building Ripsaw in his garage right out of high school, when he was an Eliot police officer. He eventually went to Bowdoin College, and both brothers got day jobs in their 20s. But at night, they would return to the barn behind their childhood Lebanon home to make their machines.

It was a fluke that it turned into a full-time business.

In 2004, the brothers decided to enter Ripsaw in a military-sponsored endurance race for unmanned vehicles in the Mojave Desert. It didn't win, but the brothers got invited to a specialty auto show where they met some military exhibitors who were interested in Ripsaw.

Fast forward through some Ripsaw demonstrations, and suddenly the Howe brothers were in serious talks with the military.

In 2006, they got their first round of funding, $1.25 million in the 2007 Defense Appropriations bill, then $2.2 million in the 2008 bill and $1.2 million last month in the 2009 bill.

The first military Ripsaw prototype, known as MS-1, was delivered this summer to a New Jersey Army facility, the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, to add weapons and do initial testing.

''We are excited about it. Its design is unique,'' said Bhavanjot Singh, the project manager for Ripsaw.

The military already has unmanned ground vehicles, but they are smaller, about 4 feet by 4 feet, and not capable of speeds above 20 mph, he said. Ripsaw is bigger, faster and modular, which means it is easy to ship, assemble and -- if need be -- cannibalize.

''If a Hummer gets blown up on one side, that's it. It's one big chassis. But the Ripsaw, it's like Lego. If one side gets blown off, it can be replaced in one day by a couple of guys,'' Singh said. ''That's huge. There's nothing out there like this.''

Details of Ripsaw's capabilities are classified, but it costs about $500,000 to build one, can operate remotely for miles and travel 300 miles before refueling. It could be used to lead convoys where roadside bombs are a threat or assist soldiers under fire.

''We get these e-mails from soldiers, from mothers and families of soldiers, saying 'Why isn't this vehicle out there already? We need it.' Sometimes it will bring a tear to my eye reading them,'' Geoffrey Howe said. ''We're trying to do that.''

There is some chance that the Ripsaw prototype will be sent to Iraq this winter, according to the Howe brothers and Singh.

If the prototype goes, it may get destroyed, but frankly, the brothers wouldn't mind.

''If I got the call, it would be the happiest day if it saved the lives of four soldiers,'' Geoffrey Howe said. ''We went into it knowing that Ripsaw is designed to get between the human and the danger.''

Singh said the military hopes to send Ripsaw to the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiments at Fort Benning, Ga., next fall, where soldiers can test it.

Howe and Howe is already under contract to build the next generation Ripsaw, the MS-2. One change will be a manual override for Ripsaw and the weapon mounted on top.

Singh said the Howes' passion comes across in their work.

''With big contractors, they'll take their time building something or wait for the big contracts,'' Singh said. ''The Howe brothers want to prove themselves.''

Small shops like Howe and Howe frequently come up with military innovations, military analyst Jay Korman said.

''It's not surprising that it's two brothers in their garage that have come up with something interesting,'' said Korman, an analyst with the Avascent Group, a defense research and consulting firm in Washington, D.C. ''There's almost a recognition that most big breakthroughs won't happen at the 200,000-person defense contractor.''

Korman noted, though, that the unmanned ground vehicle sector is still experimental, and ''there could be a shakeout in this sector.''

Singh said Ripsaw is at a crossroads, as Army officials determine how they might use this vehicle. If the Army decides it wants a large order -- 100 or more vehicles -- then it may be hard for Howe and Howe to keep complete control of production in Maine, he said.

''What I foresee is Howe getting tied up with someone big like (General Dynamics) who can mass produce these,'' Singh said.

The Howes want to keep their business within the state.

''There's no reason we can't do this in Maine. There are incredibly talented people here,'' Geoffrey Howe said.

They have already turned down offers from foreign entities to sell the company or build Ripsaws overseas.

''We're extremely patriotic. There is that yearning for us to help the soldiers,'' Mike Howe said. ''It was a struggle for us to pass up that money. But we can sleep at night.''

Welder Mike Foisy, who served two tours in Iraq, said he likes working at Howe and Howe.

''Working here relieves a lot of the guilt I feel at leaving a lot of buddies back there,'' said Foisy, who lives in Acton.

But not all their work is for the military.

Among the company's commercial products are the ''Badger,'' or PAV1, a one-man tank that can fit through doorways, ride up elevators and climb stairs. The company is building it for the California Civil Protection Services for use by SWAT teams and other police agencies.

''We are breaking new ground on vehicles that save human lives,'' Mike Howe said.

They also are building 40 rugged subterranean rovers over the next two years for Drummond Coal Co. The vehicle, which looks like a beefed-up dune buggy, will be used to transport workers.

It's all a far cry from when they were kids. But a reminder of that wellspring of creativity hangs on Mike Howe's office wall. It's a slab of wood with the words ''Howe Howe and Construction,'' burned into it with a magnifying glass by Geoff when he was 7 or 8 years old. Their mother rediscovered the sign just a few weeks ago, and it immediately got place of pride on the wall.

''We put her through a lot growing up,'' Mike Howe said of their mother, recalling how he and Geoffrey chopped down a neighbor's trees for a fort and once blew up the family's wood stove testing the ''expansion properties'' of soup cans.

''Howe Howe and Construction -- that's pretty close to Howe and Howe Technologies,'' Mike Howe said, looking over at this brother. ''Who knew?''

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

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