The small, unmanned vehicle barreled on minitank tracks across the tarmac, looking
more like a playground toy than a sophisticated and lethal weapon of war.
But as its six high-powered cameras and thermal-imaging night sight scanned
the crowd and its menacing M-249 machine gun turned in search of targets, soldiers
and civilians nervously scattered out of its path, just in case.
A few hundred feet away, hidden inside a trade-show booth, operator Bob Quinn
chuckled as he sat in front of a small remote-control box.
His Talon robot, a product of the engineering firm Foster-Miller, wasn't on
an actual battlefield mission. He was just showing off last week amid the Pentagon's
biggest gathering for the latest in military gizmos.
Every two years since 1996--when 19 U.S. servicemen were killed and hundreds
injured in the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, and the Department of
Defense concluded it needed to acquire better protection for the troops--the
Pentagon has invited hundreds of select private-security firms to display their
state-of-the-art gear at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va.
The three-day show, called the Force Protection and Equipment Demonstration
(FPED), is unique in that the vendors have to put up or shut up: they have to
prove that their products actually work as advertised and be able to deliver
inventory in 90 days. The military's push to protect the troops has only gained
urgency since the 9/11 attacks precipitated the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We come to FPED to find rapid solutions to those things that keep us
up at night," said Marine Colonel James Lowe, commander of the Quantico
The exhibition is like a toy store for grownups. The several thousand products
on display range from such low-tech items as a concrete bunker and a machine
for filling sandbags at high speed to a nonlethal directed-energy weapon that
can heat a human body to an unbearable temperature and an "acoustic sniper
finder" that uses eight microphones to locate an enemy shooter based on
the sound from his rifle shot.
Defending troops against the new threat of suicide fighters is a major challenge
to vendors. "Playing offense--killing the enemy--is pretty simple,"
said Karl Alizade, a Navy veteran and president of City-Safe, which makes bombproof
containers and rooms.
"But playing effective defense is much tougher." Dozens of Defense
Department officials stopped at Med-Eng's booth to look at an armored suit designed
to protect the soldiers who man the machine guns on top of vehicles and are
especially vulnerable to shrapnel from roadside bombs.
The Army has ordered more than 2,000 of the suits for Iraq, and the manufacturer
hopes the show will help sell more. The company took only three months to design,
test and start delivering the product.
Part of the purpose of the exhibition is to speed up a sluggish procurement
system. The Pentagon has failed for months, for example, to get into Iraq adequate
protection against improvised explosive devices and is losing an average of
a soldier nearly every day to those homemade bombs.
The show brings more than 550 vendors to one site and helps compress a laborious
Defense Department process by offering commanders proven equipment that is already
A system installed in a large Ford pickup truck looked more like a family-vacation
outfit than a security tool. Each of four passengers had a color video screen
and easy access to a small box with knobs and a joystick.
Only this wasn't a game: it was part of a remotely operated weapons system.
The screens display views from cameras atop the truck with a range, clarity
and thermal-imaging capacity that permit operators to see what the human eye
The joystick allows a gunner to aim the cameras and fire a machine gun, also
mounted on the truck bed, while the crew is protected inside the armored cab.
Much of the emphasis at this year's show was on innovations, such as the remodeled
Ford, that take soldiers a step away from maximum danger.
Quinn, the robot-program manager, thinks the future belongs to those who will
move humans even farther from the battlefield. Several of his Talons are already
on their way to Iraq.