Reporter's Notebook: The Minnesota Defense Industry

Categories: Business

The first post-911 assessment of Minnesota's share of the hundreds of billions of dollars in defense money tossed around each year found local businesses dealing in everything "from high-end eyewear and electronic interconnect and communication solutions, to anger management course design and medical transcription."

That was 2006, and the list of companies doing business with the Pentagon (or with the businesses doing business with the Pentagon) is growing.

My roundup of Minnesota companies bringing defense dollars to the state's economy looked at just a few, and looked beyond the local giants like munitions-maker Alliant Tech (now called ATK), or Hormel (who, with Schwans and Land-o-Lakes does big business stocking military mess halls around the globe.

Here's an illustrated look and some of the businesses profiled in my article (and a few who weren't). And for the data-fiends among us, you'll find some numbers at the bottom.

RECON ROBOTICS:

The Scout Throwable Robot started with a mid-'90s Pentagon challenge to create a surveillance robot that could be fired from a grenade launcher. Military planners were haunted by the ambush in Somalia—they wanted to see around corners and into buildings without sending a living, breathing scout.

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.

It looks like this:

reconphoto01_large.jpg

Your intrepid reporter, driving said robot into his shoe:

IMG_9525.JPG

Over at the University of Minnesota's Center for Distributed Robotics website, you can get your James Bond on and look at all the prototype modified Scouts they've got cooking. There is a Scout that climbs stairs, one with a grappling hook or a blimp or a geiger counter attached.

Andrew Drenner worked o the Scout as a student at the University. Now he's a project manager for Recon. Finishing his PhD on managing "swarms" of robots in his spare time. "Imagine you have 1,000 robots working together, you can't have 1,000 people driving them," he says. A hint of what may be coming. Pull up your covers.

PRIMORDIAL:

Randy Milbert was just out of M.I.T. and watching Blackhawk Down when he had the epiphany that led him to start his company, Primordial and pitch his product: Ground Guidance System, to the Pentagon.

The concept is simple--soldiers need to know what they're getting into, and be well concealed getting into it--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.

Here's the "fastest route" function:

fast.jpg

And here's the "concealed route" function:

concealed.jpg

MINNESOTA DEFENSE:

Minnesota Defense is a division of Minnesota Wire & Cable. The company has its hands in all sorts of sci-fi defense projects, most of them in support of the Pentagon's currently sidelined Land Warrior project.

A most compelling Minnesota Defense undertaking is the prototype Medical Sensor Glove. The concept is simple, and brilliant: touch a wounded soldier with the glove and all vital signs are instantly known to the battlefield medic or transmitted via wireless technology to a facility off the battlefield.

The prime contractor for the glove is a company called Titan. Minnesta defense aided in the design and built the prototypes.

Glove%201-28-05A.jpg

SPEECHGEAR:

The U.S. Military has a language problem (a few of them, actually)--in the main, its soldiers and diplomats and even its spies lack for the Arabic or Farsi they need to communicate in the countries they've invaded. A company in Northfield might be able to help. A little. Nobody can program a human brain to know a language, at least not in the time it takes to plan a war. But you can program a computer, or a camera. SpeechGear--"the instant translation company"--has done just that.

Here's what their camera technology can do:

camera.jpg

It's not a bad idea, since the friendly messages tend to be in English. The not-so-friendly images? Not so much.

FOOD:

stream_image-1_450x352.shkl.jpeg
General Mills corporate headquarters in Minnetonka

Minnesota food companies do a good business with the Pentagon.

Hormel did $44 million in business with the Defense Commissary Agency in 2007. Schwan's did nearly $15 million. General Mills: $190.5 million. Land 'O Lakes: $14.5 million.

THE NUMBERS:

In 2007, according to number crunching by USASpending.gov Minnesota companies did $2.8 billion in Federal contract work.

The top five products or services sold breakdown like this:

1. Miscellaneous electrical components: $285 million
2. Food items for resale: nearly $277 million
3. Guns, over 125mm through 150mm: $167.5 million
4. Ammunition, 75mm through 125mm: $143 million
5. Dairy foods and eggs: nearly $132 million

The top five agencies purchasing from Minnesota contractors:

The Navy: $768.5 million
The Army: $658 million
Defense Commissary Agency: $279 million
Farm Service Agency: $255.5 million
Department of Veterans Affairs: $239 million

Minnesotas top 10 contractors are mostly military:

1. Lockheed Martin
2. Alliant Integrated Defense
3. BAE Systems
4. General Mills
5. Alliant Techsystems
6. Cargill
7. Land O'Lakes
8. Hormel
9. General Dynamics
10. Starkey Labs

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