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Geoff Howe is Senior Vice President of Howe & Howe (a subsidiary of Textron Systems), a producer of advanced robotic platforms and applications built and proven for the most extreme conditions in the world. Geoff Howe, along with his brother Michael Howe, founded Howe & Howe Technologies in 2001. The company was acquired by Textron Systems in 2018.
The company’s robotics portfolio includes the RIPSAW, a robotic combat vehicle, and Thermite, an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) that was the USA’s first firefighting UGV. The company also produces the Big Dog, an off-road truck and also serves as an all-terrain multi-use firetruck
Joanne Pransky: How did you first conceive of the world’s first firefighting unmanned ground vehicle? Can you explain its technological and commercial journey?
Geoff Howe: We started Howe & Howe in 2001 with the mindset to not only help the US military with robotic technology, but other sectors of the country and world as well. Our first firefighting unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) represented an evolution of thought throughout the robotics industry to determine where we wanted to go and really assist.
The robotic firefighter piggybacked on our other successes and programs which stemmed from our response to the attacks on September 11, 2001. We had designed the RIPSAW for the military and we had also invented the SWAT-Bot which was basically a mobile ballistic shield that protects up to six SWAT (special weapons and tactics) officers. In 2008, there was a big push for us to innovate as best as we could in all industries while still maintaining our personal and professional charter which was – and still is today – that whatever we do has to be for the betterment of humanity. That really led us to the discussion of first responders – police officers, firefighters, paramedics, etc. who put their lives on the line every day – and to the question of, “What are we doing for the firefighters?”
In general, firefighters have other tasks and safety definitions in addition to standoff with fire and explosions. There is a lot of physical labor that goes into being a firefighter. They carry about 50–60 pounds of firefighting gear and they have an extremely high rate of back injuries from exerting effort in hauling ladders, hauling heavy fire hoses and jumping off trucks. Therefore, we developed the Thermite firefighting robot technology as a proof-of-concept back in 2010. At that time, our business was 70%–80% military; and 20%–30% commercial and industrial.
In 2013, we were poised to win a really big contract for our Improvised Explosive Device (IED) defeat robot called the RS1-DR1 Raker (Figure 1). Unfortunately, sequestration (sequestration refers to automatic spending cuts that occur through the withdrawal of funding for certain government programs) hit the industry and dried up our R&D funding.
Luckily, we had a lot of things that we were still working on, but I do remember having a discussion with my brother and partner, Mike, regarding what our future looks like. I said, “If something doesn’t change in the next six months, we’re going under with the rest of them.” We decided that we can’t continue down the same road; we’ve got to get off and onto a different road, diversify and leverage what we have in the military and bring our technologies to the commercial sector. But, how do we make that transitional switch with our business model and portfolio? We took a look at all of our technologies. We had the Ripchair which we could really start to evolve a program designed for paralyzed people in the military, but could also be used for anybody with paralysis; quadriplegic, paraplegic, Parkinson’s, etc.
The other option was the firefighting robot that we had been concept-proofing for the past several years. The firefighting robot was certainly needed at the time (Figure 2).
We had a large contingency of firefighters in China who wanted this firefighting technology and in 2015, they became our first customer and ended up using them quite effectively. I believe that they were the first case in the world that a firefighting robot was used at an active scene. We are still delivering to them to this day. We have systems in the UAE and a few other countries as well (Figure 3).
What we found as pioneers in this new, yet specific field, was that there were a lot of takeaways to learn, understand and evolve. For example, while a lot of other countries overseas were very comfortable using firefighting robotic technology and were purchasing our units as fast as we could build them, we had been unsuccessful in breaking into the American market until April 2020, when the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) became our first domestic sale. Whether they were motivated by the fires in California or by the death of fifteen emergency responders who responded to a fire at a Texas fertilizer company in 2013 and were killed in an ammonium nitrate explosion, the US firefighting industry was finally looking at robotic technology as a way to keep their people safe. The irony is that a couple of days after the LAFD received their first Thermite – before they took complete full official delivery and were trained on it – there was a five alarm fire in Los Angeles and they used the Thermite to help push debris out of the way into the building so that other firefighters could get in and immediately do their jobs (Figure 4).
A huge important caveat to robotic firefighters is not replacing the firefighter. Even though we live and build these systems here in the USA, I think that some of the reasons why it’s been difficult to bring this robotic technology to the United States beyond any other country, are due to thoughts such as “I do not want a robot to replace my job.” The truth on this is the robotic firefighter is simply a tool. It’s a ladder; it’s a fire truck. It is not replacing anybody. It’s just basically providing standoff and safety so that when a building does go up and you need to extinguish it, you can send in hardware that can easily be replaced.
Another difficult challenge we found to overcome in the US was that generally, Americans love to be heroes. This is what America really is about and when you’re a police officer or a firefighter, there is a sense of danger and a sense of adrenaline that comes rushing in that defines the job, vs bringing in something that can do those dangerous jobs for you. It’s different in other countries which mandate their residents to be a firefighter, so they don’t have a choice in their job. For that person, there’s a lot more sense of welcoming the robotic technology so they don’t have to put themselves in harm’s way.
That’s the evolution of our robot firefighting history and how we got there.
Joanne Pransky: How long does it take to build a Thermite?
Geoff Howe: We like to build what we call soup-to-nuts right out the door; start to finish. We do 90% of the manufacturing here at our facility in Waterboro, ME. It usually takes about three months to receive a Thermite RS1 and about five months to receive the RS3 (Figure 5).
Joanne Pransky: Have you been able to create your machines by using existing modules developed by third parties, or do you find that your requirements are so specialized you have to create everything from scratch?
Geoff Howe: There’s the Thermite RS1 (RS stands for Robotic Solution) and there is the RS3. The RS1 was developed back in 2009 with the intent of being completely modular so instead of having a robot that does a specific task, it could do multiple tasks.
The RS1 is the platform, the base that holds it all. We call that an MMP, which is a “modular mission payload,” derived from military terminology. You can remove the firefighting equipment, literally within 15 or 20 min, and put on a SWAT-Bot application, so now it’s turned from a firefighter into a police unit.
In 2010–2011, the RS1 was being used as an IED defeat robot with a roller on the front. The MMP modular robotic solution turned out to be the quintessential Swiss Army knife of systems where you can do many different things and evolve it over the years. For example, when COVID hit in March 2020, we ended up developing a dispensing system for disinfectant on the RS3 base unit as the Thermite firefighter.
It was a very quick and easy swap out from the existing ventilator to a chemical dispensing system which we tested in our parking lots and other big areas. That modified robotic firefighting based system was designed, developed and fabricated in less than three weeks. In less than 90 s, we had our entire parking lot in front of our facility decontaminated with disinfectant. That’s the type of forward thinking that we’re trying to do here.
Joanne Pransky: Is any of your technology patented?
Geoff Howe: Prior to being acquired by Textron Systems in 2018, Howe & Howe had patented various technologies. Since that acquisition, we have continued to develop and file for patents on our technologies. The acquisition by Textron Systems was important because they had the unmanned air and sea games, and they wanted the unmanned ground game as well. Our technology filled that gap for them very easily in a short period of time and we now provide ground solutions to Textron Systems for their military programs as well as firefighting solutions to municipal and commercial organizations.
Our robotic firefighting technology is never standing still. Daily, we are always making improvements, adjustments, new designs, new MMPs and new control processes as well, to give us the edge over the competition. We are always moving forward in technology.
Joanne Pransky: How does the Thermite compare to the other commercialized robotic firefighters?
Geoff Howe: I believe that we are the only ones building robotic firefighting robots of this size in the USA. It’s a brand-new market that literally we created and other competitors are now coming in.
What we try to do here is stand in front. We’ve been doing this for a long time. We’ve been driving human factors for MMPs and making human interaction as easy and most effective as possible for many years. We like to think our system is the best in the market, which is obviously a personal opinion and one that we hope our customers share.
Joanne Pransky: Any plans to increase the Thermite’s autonomy or are there any other new products in the works?
Geoff Howe: Our robotic firefighting technology is never standing still. Daily, we are always making improvements, adjustments, new designs, new MMPs and new control processes as well, to give us the edge over the competition. We are always moving forward in technology. We see autonomy in all of our robotic systems in the future; it may not be next year, but certainly in the years to come. That is the logical next step to take and to do it safely.
Joanne Pransky: What is your all-time favorite Howe and Howe robot?
Geoff Howe: It’s probably going to be the Ripchair. It’s not a robot, but the Ripchair is a design we have that gets people who are paralyzed outdoors doing things they never thought they would be able to do again. When one experiences that first-hand, the joy is so infectious. It is something that’s very special indeed and near and dear to my heart.
My favorite achievement is the team of men and women that I have assembled in the past 20 years.
Joanne Pransky: What is your proudest moment?
Geoff Howe: My favorite achievement is the team of men and women that I have assembled in the past 20 years. It is very difficult to assemble a team like this anywhere and finding the right people that work together and work so hard is my greatest achievement. I’m still truly proud of our workforce and their dedication.
Joanne Pransky: What was your motivation for doing the discovery channel show?
Geoff Howe: The Discovery Channel program, entitled Black Ops Brothers: Howe and Howe Tech, was an exciting time. That’s when US reality shows were big. We were breaking viewing audience records initially but it was a very fast-paced operation with 14–18 h nonstop days during the shooting schedule. There was a great deal of innovation going on and we were just having a lot of fun at the time. Being in the public eye also didn’t hurt; the publicity only helps one’s cause or product.
Joanne Pransky: What do you think engineering students should be doing while in school to best prepare them for the commercial side of robotics?
Geoff Howe: I would say the best thing that they could do is to do something hands-on such as tearing down a four-wheeler and turning it into a race car, etc. Our engineers are always hands on – of course they sit at their desks to do their CAD designs, but there is also a portion of their time that they’re on the floor working with the material specialists, the fabricators and the assemblers.
The first question I ask a prospective employee in the interview is: “What are your special projects? What are your hobbies”? I love to hear that their experience is due to having worked on their own projects. It’s important to understand what that edge is that you have on others, because there are people that go through and get their masters and PhDs and others that learn the same thing with applicable experiences in their own programs and projects. Experience is really an important thing that we look for here.
Joanne Pransky has been an Associate Editor for Industrial Robot Journal since 1995. She was also one of the co- founders and the Director of Marketing of the world’s ﬁrst medical robotics journal, The International Journal of Medical Robotics and Computer Assisted Surgery. Pransky also served as the Senior Sales and Marketing Executive for Sankyo Robotics, a manufacturer of industrial robot systems. She has consulted for some of the industry’s top robotic and entertainment organizations, including Robotic Industries Association, Motoman, Stäubli, KUKA Robotics, ST Robotics, DreamWorks, Warner Bros., and for Summit Entertainment’s ﬁlm Ender’s Game, in which she brought never-seen-before medical robots to the big screen. She can be contacted at joannepransky[@]gmail.com.
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