Your Friendly Neighborhood War Profiteer

It's not just Alliant Techsystems. Hundreds of small Minnesota companies are cashing in on America's defense industry.

The University of Minnesota took up the challenge. A grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to the university's Center for Distributed Robotics in 1997 funded the work that gave life to what its student engineers would call the Scout Throwable Robot. All told, federal grants fed more than $6 million into the Scout.

Enter Bignall, a former executive at Fingerhut and American Express with no military background, who was tipped off to the Scout project by a "retired CIA-type." A professor and a handful of students at the university started Recon Robotics in 2005, but in-house production capacity was limited, and the students and their professor weren't wired for business ("Academics are not trained to take things to market," Bignall says). They hired Bignall in 2006, and he's drawn in hundreds of thousands of dollars in private investment, built an ambitious but cautious business plan, and manages the company's 11 employees.

The function of this lightweight, dumbbell-shaped robot is reconnaissance. The tiny video-eye transmits a black-and-white feed to a small screen on a handheld remote. It's a tool for the "over-cautious," says Bignall, a sort of canary in the coalmine to warn: "Whatever you do, don't come the hell in here."

Randy Milbert, founder and president, shows off Primordial's Ground Guidance System,  coming soon  to a GPS near you
Randy Milbert, founder and president, shows off Primordial's Ground Guidance System, coming soon to a GPS near you
Alan Bignall, president and CEO, and Patrick McKinney, COO, roll out the Recon Scout from Recon Robotics
Alan Bignall, president and CEO, and Patrick McKinney, COO, roll out the Recon Scout from Recon Robotics

At an Edina office park, the Scout is always on the clock—driven over the edge of tables, lobbed across a parking lot, and tossed onto a roof. There's no on/off switch—just pull a pin, like a grenade, and the video feed on the handheld control goes live.

Recon Robotics sold 100 Scouts in its first year, mostly to police and SWAT teams. Now they're fishing in military waters. Bignall's NATO trip was a success. "They called it 'le petit miracle,'" he says, laughing. Bignall and other Recon representatives are forever showing their robot. Last year they attended roughly one event or meeting every week. Homeland Security has added the Scout to its "approved equipment list," and a few have found their way to Iraq through reservists who got to know the Scout in their police or SWAT jobs.

At a trade show in Los Angeles, Bignall was standing with his robot when a man came by with a message: "I've used this thing. It saved my life in Iraq—saved my team." He disappeared into the crowd before Bignall could get his name.

Company: Primordial

City: St. Paul

Product: Ground Guidance System

Funding: Private investment and $1.2 million in Army and R&D contracts

A presentation of Primordial's patented Ground Guidance System at a V-shaped conference table in St. Paul feels a bit like a top-secret briefing. CEO Randy Milbert's supercharged GPS system is built for hunters and hikers as much as the military, but the military function, added under contract with U.S. Special Forces, is the most compelling.

The concept is simple, but the execution is complex and confidential. He displays an aerial map of a swath of wooded terrain cubed by small roads. "Normally," he explains, "GPS would take you from point A to point B in a straight line, even if it took you through a lake. Or something like Google Maps would route you along local roads."

Primordial's technology, loaded onto heavy-duty laptops and handheld GPS devices, does something far more complex. Milbert presses a button and an animated, meandering line emerges fitfully. It's the "concealed route"—point A to point B through brush, forest, hills, or mountains. The route is calculated using what Milbert calls a "secret sauce" of satellite photos, topographical information, and the like.

Everything is taken into consideration: Are you on foot or driving a Special Forces all-terrain vehicle (Polaris, another Minnesota company, manufactures Special Forces ATVs)? If you are on foot, you can set your desired pace. If you are on wheels, Milbert's program factors the vehicle's maximum climbing rate so no incline on the route is too steep.

Next he pulls up an aerial map of Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, a site of frequent and fierce urban warfare. A feature called "intervisibility" shows you an aerial view of the spot where you're standing, with extraordinary detail, and maps out your line of sight in all directions—every alley, rooftop, and crevasse.

Everything you can see, of course, is a place from which you can be seen—by snipers, namely. This sensibility has no doubt been internalized by Special Forces soldiers—Milbert's technology serves as a sort of tactical idiot check.

Milbert first developed the idea as a student at MIT, when he attended a meeting of a student entrepreneurship club and learned about a government program that requires federal agencies to include businesses with 500 or fewer employees. Mind-wheels started to turn. Back home after graduating in 2000, Milbert (who was tutored as a high school student in Hopkins by Robert Stephens, later the founder of the computer-repair startup Geek Squad) launched a company called Soldier Vision from his parents' basement.

Today the company is called Primordial—the old name made civilian clients itchy—and Milbert has an office at the headquarters of Minnesota Defense, within spitting distance of Midway Stadium. Milbert employs 11 full-time software engineers.

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