Mike and Geoff Howe have devised a line of extreme vehicles that have taken them way off road.
By Rob Sneddon
Photographed by Mark Fleming
A photo hangs in a conference room at Howe and Howe Technologies in Waterboro. It’s a compelling image that evokes the D-Day invasion: A combat tank, its 50-caliber machine gun silhouetted against the sky, is awash in heavy surf as it storms the beach.
But it isn’t Normandy in 1944. It’s Ogunquit in 2010.
“Yeah, we had it in the water there,” Mike Howe says. “And then we did a beach run. I think we were clocked at about 70 miles an hour.”
The invasion of Ogunquit was part of a “platform test” for an amphibious tank called Riptide. It’s a variation on the Ripsaw, Howe and Howe’s radical military vehicle that combines the toughness of a tank with the acceleration of a sports car. The Ripsaw prototype earned Howe and Howe a contract with the Department of Defense in 2006 and earned an Invention of the Year Award from Popular Science magazine in 2009.
Imagine if the Wright brothers had been born a century later and raised in Maine. And they were both 6 feet 4 inches tall. And they played in a heavy-metal band. That’s the Howe brothers.
For them, building this viable R&D company for experimental vehicles took not only vision, but also large doses of perseverance and sheer nerve. Maintaining that company in the wake of massive federal budget cuts requires even larger doses. “My grandma used to say, ‘People are like crabs in a bucket,’” Mike says. “It’s an old Mainer saying — you know, when one crab tries to climb out of the bucket, the others pull him back in. And that’s human nature, too. You always have naysayers. So you have to take that negative energy and turn it into a positive.”
The government hired us to do a job: develop robotic technology.
Mike and his identical twin, Geoff, started down their unusual career path when they were kids. “We really had inventor-type minds right from the get-go,” Mike says. “I didn’t have a bike because I took it apart and made a robotic arm out of it.”
In addition to taking things apart, they enjoyed blowing stuff up. Take the time they compared the differences in the expansion properties of propane and acetylene in an advanced placement science lab at Kents Hill School, near Augusta. “Yes, you can explain it to the teacher,” Mike says. “But in the end, you’re exploding things to compare them. So we were pushing the envelope with our teachers, and they loved it. I think.”
That combination caught the attention of the U.S. military. “Before you knew it, these projects started to get some acknowledgment,” Mike says. “DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] was interested. ARDEC [Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center] was interested. Senator [Susan] Collins was interested. It was, ‘Hey, what are these Maine boys doing? And can they help us out with the war effort?’”
Ripsaw’s enhanced off-road capabilities had obvious applications for the extreme environments of Iraq and Afghanistan. And a robotic version could be invaluable in dealing with the growing threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
With substantial political backing, the Howes secured $1.2 million in federal funding. And their side business became their full-time (and then some) occupation. “Basically” says Mike, “the government hired us to do a job: develop robotic technology.”
And it turns out Maine is an ideal place to test unmanned ground vehicles. “Maine is ecologically diverse,” Mike says. “We have sand, we have cold weather, we have it all. When we test our robots, we test them in Maine’s worst environments, and the Army can see that.”
Maine also provided an ideal political environment, at both the state and local levels. Take that Riptide test at Ogunquit. “We can call up and say, ‘Can we bring a military prototype down there to test it?’ ” Mike says. “And they’re supportive. Ogunquit brought the fire department down, they brought EMS, and we had a bunch of military brass there.”
Howe and Howe’s basic technical platform was highly adaptable. Working with the Massachusetts State Police, they developed SWAT-Bot, a robotic ballistic shield that protects officers in armed standoffs or bomb threats. For firefighters, they developed Thermite, a robotic sprayer for use in buildings that are in danger of collapse or when fighting hazardous chemical fires. Thermite can also be used to fight remote wildfires, which it reaches by way of Bulldog, an International 6500 4×4 outfitted with 54-inch tires.
To handle all of these R&D projects, Howe and Howe moved into the former Sylvania plant on Route 4 in Waterboro and hired a workforce of almost 50.
After much of their work was documented on Howe and Howe Tech: Black Ops Brothers, a reality series that ran for two seasons on the Discovery Channel, Hollywood came calling. Howe and Howe delivered a customized, demilitarized version of the Ripsaw for use in G.I. Joe: Retaliation starring Bruce Willis and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The producers wanted real action sequences, not computer-generated graphics, and Howe and Howe came through with a tank capable of executing power slides and jumps.
Although they were having as much fun as ever, the Howes also became more philanthropic. The result was Ripchair, an “extreme wheelchair.” In conjunction, Howe and Howe started Outdoors Again, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing the disabled with the type of hunting, fishing, and hiking experiences that the able-bodied take for granted.
Geoff says that the idea came about “right around the time that my wife [Tammy] and I became born-again [Christians]. Mike and I were in the movies, we had our own TV show, we had Invention of the Year, we had all these accolades, but . . . I’ll tell you straight up: A lot of the things we did were selfish.”
Howe and Howe has also been dealing with another perspective-altering event. “Sequestration happened,” Mike says, in the matter-of-fact tone you might use to acknowledge another s-word that often happens.
Because of federal budget cuts, Howe and Howe has had to lay off 75 percent of its workforce. But the company continues to develop projects in the private sector. “Geoff and I have that Maine quality,” Mike says, “where if we say we’re gonna do something, we’ll do it and do it until we die. It’s not, ‘OK, we’ll do it as long as things go well.’”
That attitude has served them well. “One of our [Army] sources told us that we were the last ones standing from all the small R&D guys,” Mike says. “And the reason is that we diversified.”
Business has picked up to the point where Howe and Howe plans to start rehiring. “We literally can’t build Ripchairs fast enough,” Mike says. Geoff adds that a wealthy college football fan from down south recently ordered a customized Bulldog for “extreme tailgating.”
Mike’s voice rises like a revving throttle as he describes another recent addition to the H&H portfolio: Coastal Maine Charters, which launched last summer. “It just occurred to me and Geoff one time when we were in Florida that Maine does not have any kind of high-speed, go-fast, warm-weather, Florida-style charters.”
It does now. CMC uses a 35-foot Donzi cigarette boat equipped with three outboard motors that travels at speeds up to 50 miles an hour.
“We thought, Why wouldn’t people want to get to the fishing grounds in style, in one-fourth the time?” Mike says. “And it’s worked out great. We’re booked up solid. CMC is completely autonomous, it’s making money, it’s employing people. And it’s adding something to Maine’s coastline for vacationers.”
While others might interpret the introduction of CMC as an abrupt lane change, Mike sees it instead as a way to stay on course.
“What else would we do?” he says. “Just pack up? No — not in Maine we don’t. We model things differently to make sure we survive.”