Grieving dad invents defense robot

Marketplace Staff Nov 12, 2008

Grieving dad invents defense robot

Marketplace Staff Nov 12, 2008


Kai Ryssdal:

President Bush and President-elect Obama paid tribute to America’s veterans in separate speeches today. At Arlington National Cemetery Vice President Cheney laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
So far, almost 4,200 Americans soldiers have died in Iraq. Most of their families have grieved quietly and then tried to get back to their lives.
But for one couple in Massachusetts, personal tragedy has turned into a mission and a business. From WGBH in Boston, Monica Brady-Myerov has more.

Monica Brady-Myerov: Army Private First Class John Hart kept in regular contact with his family in suburban Boston while he was stationed in Iraq. But there’s one phone call in October 2003 his parents, Brian and Alma, will never forget.

Alma Hart: As soon as Brain hung up, he told me what John had said, and he’s pacing back and forth across the living room on, who should we contact, what can we do that won’t have any feedback on John.

The soldier had called pleading for his father’s help to get his unit and other troops armor plating for their Humvees and body armor to wear. John Hart said he felt exposed to attack.

Alma Hart: A week later John was dead and it was like, OK, we can do anything we need to do now. They can’t hurt us any more than this.

John Hart was killed when a group of insurgents ambushed his Humvee. Brian Hart found solace in the code his son lived by.

Brian Hart: John as a 20-year-old believed that you could make a difference as a person, and he and the other soldiers who enlisted with him also felt that way.

Brian Hart vowed he’d make his own difference by trying to keep those soldiers as safe as possible. He had just sold his pharmacy automation business. And rather than take a new job, Hart worked full-time lobbying Congress for armored Humvees and body protection. U.S. troops now have both in part due to his advocacy.

But Hart decided to go further. He was haunted by a video he saw of a soldier using his Humvee to push a car bomb off the road. The bomb exploded. Hart thought there must be a better way of handling car bombs. So he launched a business with his brother and created something called The Landshark.
It’s a six-wheeled robot about the size of a wheelchair. It defuses car bombs by drenching them in water.

Brian Hart: Our objective is to make it simple enough so that a guy who can take care of his motorcycle and play a Game Boy or an Xbox could control this unit.

Earlier this summer, Logan International Airport in Boston bought the first one. And Hart recently landed a defense contract for $800,000. The military will test the units and, if all goes well, they could be with soldiers in Iraq next year. Still, despite the market potential with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hart says it’s been hard to get funding.
Dana Callow isn’t surprised. He heads the venture capital firm Millennia Partners.

Dana Callow: Defense is a double-edged sword market segment. I didn’t mean that as a pun.

Callow says investors see businesses like Hart’s as a high risk. On one hand, the wars, and their market opportunities could go on for years. But he says there’s also concern political support for the conflicts could suddenly evaporate. Hart says the whims of investors are not his primary concern.

Brian Hart: There’s a point where you realize that you have nothing to lose. You can’t live in fear if you want to live in freedom. Having the courage to act is probably the one thing the dead can’t do, and it is our obligation, our obligation to the soldiers we sent to war to advocate for them as a citizen.

Brian Hart says the Landshark is one way he’s trying to live up to his son’s commitment to duty.

In Boston, I’m Monica Brady-Myerov for Marketplace.

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