They look so innocent, yet they’re so deadly. There’s the kitchen timer you’d use to boil eggs. The wristwatch with an alarm function. The greeting card with a tiny chip that plays a song. The pager rigged to go off when a call comes in.
They lie on a table in the warehouse-like space that is home to Emerging Science & Technologies Group, examples of improvised explosive devices, IEDs, that can be made with readily available components and whose detonation defeat (or “dudding,” in the industry’s jargon) is a prime company goal.
ES&T, located in Boonsboro, isn’t easily categorized. It is part systems engineering and part technology development, the latter focusing on counterterrorism and geophysical survey.
“The core business, the bread and butter, is systems engineering,” says Joseph Foley, who co-founded the Washington County company with Wes Estes in 2005. Foley, as president, oversees the engineering; as CEO, Estes conducts field operations.
Both men had worked for large government contractors before starting the privately held ES&T.
“We wanted to develop our own intellectual property,” says Foley, who worked on robots for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and on counter-IEDs and unmanned aerial vehicles (or drones) for the U.S. military.
Since its founding, ES&T, with a full-time staff of four, has achieved over $3.5 million in revenues and averages $800,000 in annual sales. The company has also invested over $1 million in research and development, although it doesn’t manufacture the products it creates.
“We’re inventors. We’re the idea guys,” says Foley, 52, a married father with a ready laugh and intelligent eyes.
Estes runs the company’s geophysical operation, which takes place out of state and involves detecting the presence of oil. Currently, the industry-accepted method of oil-discovery is seismic, which uses audio waves for underground detection.
“But you don’t know if it’s oil until you drill,” says Foley.
Since 2010, ES&T’s geophysical services have resulted in almost 35 oil and mining contracts and the successful detection of 25 oil wells.
Foley runs the company’s counterterrorism branch, which focuses on IEDs that detonate via a trigger. Similar to the geophysical technology, ES&T’s counterterrorism branch takes a counter-intuitive approach. The industry standard is to blow up the “bomb in place” (a practice known by its acronym, BIP). Instead, ES&T uses radio waves to render the blasting caps—which all IEDs have—inoperable.
A patent is pending, but before manufacturers rush to buy ES&T’s products, the company has to prove that its technology works. It does so at a nearby 20-acre facility where it conducts field tests.
“We had to come up with circuits to test our algorithm. We create [the IEDs] and then find ways to defeat them,” says Foley, whose company has also developed mobile platforms—aka robots—on which to place the technology.
Foley points to the technology’s advantages over BIP. It is without impact, meaning that nearby buildings aren’t destroyed and civilians endangered. It can be used on “dirty” bombs so they don’t explode, releasing their toxic payload into the atmosphere. It can also be used to preserve forensic evidence.
There is no question that the market for robots and dudding is huge both in military and civilian law enforcement. But, as Foley acknowledges, ES&T’s IED technology is “ahead of the curve,” and getting contracts has been a challenge.
Mike Storie has spent his career in counterterrorism, first with the U.S. Navy and now as president of his own firm, Security Consultants International, in Indian Head, site of a U.S. Joint Forces Command facility, part of the U.S. Department of Defense. Storie also serves as technical advisor to ES&T.
Storie pegs the intense, industry-wide interest in IEDs to the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War, where so many troops were lost to the devices.