The brothers who run a company in Waterboro that’s known for building high-tech military vehicles have used their engineering skills and love of the outdoors to create a new product: a rugged, go-anywhere wheelchair for disabled veterans.

“I didn’t know if I was going to throw up or cry,” said Rocky Austin, a disabled Navy veteran from Vienna who recently got to test-drive a prototype Ripchair built by Michael and Geoff Howe, the owners of Howe and Howe Technologies. “It was really something, to be mobile like that. It was nuts.”

The Ripchair has tank-like tracks to enable people with physical handicaps to return to hunting, fishing and other outdoor sports.

Michael Howe said his company decided to build the Ripchair after receiving an unsolicited e-mail from Austin. In the message, Austin, 55, asked the Howe brothers to design a go-anywhere chair that would allow him to fish in the woods.

Austin later tested the first vehicle, during the filming of “Black Ops Brothers: Howe & Howe Tech,” a Discovery Channel reality show about the daily dramas of their business.

The Ripchair will debut for a nationwide audience when the first episode of “Black Ops Brothers” airs on Jan. 5.

Powered by a 30-horsepower diesel engine and made of high-tensile steel, the Ripchair runs on tracks and is designed to let users go where traditional wheelchairs can’t take them, such as into the woods. The Ripchair can climb slopes of 45 to 50 degrees and can move at 10 mph.

“You don’t need a trail. It’s like a tank, but it’s a wheelchair. It can bridge a gap over one foot and go through thick, deep mud and sand,” said Michael Howe, president of the company.

Howe said the chair was designed and developed in three months. The prototype was completed in late summer and cost $49,000 to build. Howe said mass-production efficiencies and investments from nonprofit groups will bring down the price.

The Howes plan to give the prototype to Austin.

Teri Olson, a staffer at the Togus Veterans Administration Medical Center, put Austin in touch with the Howe brothers. She hasn’t seen the Ripchair, but she said it has the potential to “open up a whole new life” for people with disabilities.

“It sounded like it would give anybody that had mobility issues enormous freedom,” she said. “If you are an outdoorsman, or want to go for a walk with your spouse or kids over rough terrain, you will be able to do it.”

The Howes don’t plan to make Ripchairs for a profit, since the company makes its money from military contracts. Instead, they hope to raise money and form a nonprofit to enable them to provide Ripchairs to veterans.

They also are considering a plan to convert part of the company’s 80-acre test site in Lebanon into a recreation area where disabled veterans can use Ripchairs.

“People can fly in and go fishing or hunting or hiking (and) get off the pavement,” said Michael Howe.

The brothers hope that the Ripchair featured on the first episode of “Black Ops” will attract donors.

Howe and his twin brother started their company 10 years ago. They build high-speed all-terrain vehicles for the U.S military, including the Ripsaw, a remote-controlled, 9,000-pound tank-like ground vehicle that can reach speeds of more than 60 mph.

Howe and Howe also sells small armored vehicles for SWAT teams, unmanned firefighting vehicles and the Mini Rip, an off-road vehicle for consumers.

Howe said his company funded most of Ripchair’s development costs, although Discovery Channel pays him “a small amount of money to cover the inconvenience of them shooting for each show.” He declined to say how much they are paid.

The Howe brothers made their television debut last year with “Howe and Howe Tech,” a six-episode reality show on the Discovery Channel.

 

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or at:

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