Written By Jennifer Noel
People driving down Route 97 sometimes see robots being field tested outside,” said Dr. Barbara Lindauer, Vice President of Business Development for General Dynamics Robotic Systems (GDRS).
She offered the comment casually, as if automatons roaming the fields in Carroll County were as routine as cows.
But the products that roll out of GDRS are far from routine. Each day approximately 500 engineers, electricians, computer specialists, mathematicians, and physicists at the Westminster plant work with unmanned robotic vehicles capable of patrolling such sensitive facilities as ammunition depots.
Called Mobile Detection Assessment Response System (MDARS), the vehicles have the ability to detect intruders and determine the status of product inventory and barriers and locks, according to Philip Cory, vice president and head of GDRS.
MDARS are popular with the military. In fact, much of the Carroll County company’s business comes from U.S. Department of Defense contracts.
“We deal with the United States Army, the Department of Energy and the Navy, as well as many others,” said Cory.
The MDARS maneuver without operator instruction and work completely on their own, thus reducing military man hours. They are also sent on reconnaissance missions to report on conditions before military personnel enter an area.
The history of GDRS is rooted in Hampstead, MD. In 1991, F&M Manufacturing operated out of a small machine shop in Hampstead owned by Edward Mottern and Peter Franken. The small factory manufactured robotics, aircraft parts for General Electric, machine parts for space stations, as well vertical launch systems for Lockheed Martin. By 1999, General Dynamics saw potential in the business, bought it and launched General Dynamics Robotic Systems.
“General Dynamics saw the Department of Defense was moving toward unmanned vehicles, so the purchase made sense,” said Cory.
Today three GDRS facilities have 250,000 square feet of engineering and manufacturing space in the industrial complex outside Westminster. The first facility was built in 1997; the most recent erected in 2008.
Of the nearly 500 people employed by GDRS, 221 reside in Carroll County.
“We love to get engineers from Carroll County, those who function well as a team, and really like to get hands on and make progress,” said Lindauer. “I think the employees enjoy the challenge and diversity of what we do.”
GDRS is also involved in efforts to further robotics in the Carroll County area. The company provides funding and engineering support as well as mentors for area high schools’ robotic clubs. GDRS also donates to Carroll Hospital Center, local fire departments, Carroll Food Sunday and Arc of Carroll County, and sponsors Red Cross Blood Drives.
GDRS originally had six locations, but consolidated facilities across the Westminster area to the facilities on Tech Court as well as one in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.
Like the operation at the Westminster facility, GDRS also field tests robotic vehicles across the U.S. on sites from Fort Hood, Texas to Dugway Proving Grounds, Utah.
It takes eight to ten months to build, test, and deliver a MDARS. Over the last 18 months, GDRS has manufactured five of the machines, with the aim of keeping their cost comparable to or lower than human security patrols. General Dynamics Robotic Systems is part of the Land Systems subdivision of the Combat Division of General Dynamics, which has its headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia.
Lindauer also noted that GDRS does not simply manufacture robotics.
“We take on a variety of projects, from contract manufacturing to automation and material handling, not just vehicular robots,” she said. “We are a full spectrum company.”
GDRS has remained in Carroll County because of the strong ties to the area.
“The company’s roots were in Carroll County,” said Cory. “The county has supported us through the years and really wanted to keep high technology here in the area.”