TYNGSBOROUGH, Mass. - The knock on Brian Hart's door came at 6 a.m. An Army colonel, a priest and a police officer had come to tell Hart and his wife that their 20-year-old son had been killed when his military vehicle was ambushed in Iraq.
Brian Hart didn't channel his grief quietly. Committed to "preventing the senseless from recurring," he railed against the military on his blog for shortcomings in supplying armor to soldiers. The one-time Republican teamed with liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy to tell Congress that the Pentagon was leaving soldiers ill-equipped.
And then Hart went beyond words to fight his cause. He became a defense contractor.
He founded a company that has developed rugged, relatively inexpensive robotic vehicles, resembling small dune buggies, to disable car bombs and roadside explosives before they detonate in hot spots like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now, Hart has won over the military brass he so harshly criticizes. Three years after starting Black-I Robotics Inc., Hart and his four employees won a $728,000 contract from the Pentagon in June to further develop the "LandShark" robot.
Technology to protect troops is a subject uncomfortably close to home for Hart, who says the death of his son, Army Pvt. First Class John Hart, left him in "total devastation." Brian Hart can't forget the call he got from his son in Iraq a week before he was killed by a gunshot Oct. 18, 2003.
"He asked me to help him: `Get us body armor and vehicular armor,'" Brian Hart said. "He thought he'd be killed on the road in an unarmored Humvee. And a week to the day later, he was."
The Pentagon contract requires Black-I to supply three of its six-wheeled, electric-powered vehicles this year and provide support.
The military will test two units, while Boston's Logan airport will get one for bomb-disposal duties. If tests go well, soldiers in Iraq could be using the robots as soon as next year, Hart says.
His company also is trying to secure an additional $1.5 million in Pentagon funding next fiscal year.
At 275 pounds and about 4 feet long, Black-I's LandShark looks like a dune buggy without a seat for a human driver. Hart hopes to make them available for commercial sale to law enforcement next year, with expectations that the cost would be $65,000 to $85,000 per robot, including the chassis and add-on bomb-disposing equipment. The vehicle can pull tilling equipment to plow up soil where an explosive or trip wire may be hidden. Or it can drop off "disrupters" that can be maneuvered near a bomb and set off, with jets of water disabling the bomb.
Hart contends LandSharks will be far less expensive than many of the Pentagon's current bomb-disposing robots, including models made by two larger Boston-area companies, iRobot Inc. and Foster-Miller Inc. Those models have more sophisticated electronics, but also are more fragile than LandSharks, which use car batteries rather than lighter and pricier lithium-ion batteries.
"We want to make robots affordable, so that a private first class or a lance corporal could get this equipment," Hart said.
A Foster-Miller vice president, Bob Quinn, called Hart a "superb individual," but countered that the LandShark is too big and heavy to be practical for most soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quinn said soldiers using his company's $100,000-plus Talon robots typically carry four of the hand-portable, 80-pound bots in military vehicles, along with other cargo. The advantage of this approach, he said, is that multiple robots are needed as backups. Insurgents frequently watch from a hiding spot as a robot approaches to dismantle an explosive, then remotely detonate the bomb to knock out the robot in a war of attrition, Quinn said.
Hart is a clean-cut former College Republicans chapter president who describes himself today as a radical. But he speaks like a Pentagon insider, peppering his conversation with acronyms for battlefield weapons and defense technology initiatives. His sport-utility vehicle has a "Support our troops" bumper sticker, and he posts nearly every day to his blog, which focuses on security and political issues.
While his entrepreneurial intentions are in part idealistic, Hart also hopes to make a buck with Black-I - which he co-founded with longtime business partner Arthur Berube, who helped put up money to supplement startup cash from Hart's personal savings. Hart wouldn't specify how much money they used, but said he and his four employees went without pay until the company won an unspecified amount of private equity funding in May.
While many Pentagon critics, including families of soldiers, have spoken out about better gear for soldiers, Brian Hart stands apart for his decision to launch a company focused on troop protection, said Bill Thomasmeyer, president of the National Center for Defense Robotics. The Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization helps robotics firms like Black-I compete for government contracts.
"I don't know of any other similar company that is headed by someone who has had such a personal loss as he has," Thomasmeyer said. "His company has had to overcome a lot of obstacles to get to this point, without having a lot of resources."
Another company founder is Hart's younger brother, Richard, a former Marine who serves as a Black-I product designer. But the staff is otherwise made up of acquaintances from Hart's previous ventures, which had nothing to do with robotics or military contracting. His prior executive experience has been in such fields as wireless communications and pharmaceuticals.
At Black-I, Hart and his staff relied on basic knowledge of mechanical and electrical engineering to design their robotic buggies. They cut costs by pairing custom design features with components already available commercially from other makers of small vehicles and remote-control gadgets. The off-the-shelf parts, such as the car batteries, are also expected to simplify repairs and maintenance.
Black-I operates from a modest office and garage in a small industrial park in Tyngsborough, 40 miles north of Boston, with a paved back lot serving as a testing ground.
In a demonstration for a reporter, a LandShark pushed a trash Dumpster. It was meant to simulate how the buggy could be useful for letting soldiers remain at a safe distance while a robot rams aside a car booby-trapped with explosives. The company is developing versions operated remotely by a human using radio signals, as well as models designed to complete bomb-disposing missions either wholly or partly without human intervention.
Whether or not the company keeps getting defense contracts, Brian Hart doesn't plan to stay quiet on the issues he's been raising since his son's death. He still argues that the military must remake itself to meet ground troops' basic needs and wean itself off expensive high-tech systems.
"We are spending billions upon billions on technologies and equipment we will never use, while we shortchange our infantrymen on basic equipment that will save their lives in combat," Hart said. "The way our military is run and the way our government is run doesn't have to be this bad."