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September 12, 2006
Greenville invention could save lives in Iraq
QUINCY, California (STPNS) -- By Alicia Knadler
Indian Valley Editor
The proving grounds of Greenville are little known to the outside world, but they are the birthplace of several agricultural, mechanical and warfare rescue and cleanup inventions, including those of Dr. Bill Wattenburg, a Greenville and Bay Area resident, scientist and KGO radio talk-show host.
Word about Wattenburg's latest invention, a tethered scout robot, hit the airwaves Wednesday, Aug. 16.
His robot may soon save a lot of military lives in places such as Iraq, according to David Louie, a reporter for ABC7 and KGO-TV/DT.
The robot can be used by a soldier, for example, who can stay at a safe distance while the robot gets close to a bomb and detonates it if need be.
Although the robot was Wattenburg's idea, he credits two college students with all of the work.
"Building something that works is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent sweat," Wattenburg said of the robot. "They put in the sweat of building it."
Their work on Wattenburg's newest invention began last year when they all met in Greenville with humanitarians who were interested in another of Wattenburg's life-saving inventions, a chain-matrix minesweeper.
The two students, Patrick Hayden and Jason Coates, arrived with what appeared at first glance to be remote-control toys, but were actually the first prototypes of a life-saving robot that began in Wattenburg's brain.
Wattenburg is well known for his ability to think up simple and inexpensive solutions to complex, life-threatening problems.
And the two students, who are mechatronic engineers, worked on this project for the past year at the Chico State Research Foundation with funding from the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, where Wattenburg is also connected through his work.
The goal was to find a cheap alternative to the military's complex and ultra-expensive robot.
Their design began with a radio-controlled monster truck, the kind many parents and children are seen outside with the day after Christmas.
Hayden and Coates added a detonation circuit to explode bombs and a very small color-video camera like the ones mounted to the safety helmets of Fear Factor players.
They had to change the radio control to the old wire-type control for better reliability.
The 1,000-foot-long, standard networking cable is not only safer and more reliable, but also provides enough length for the operator to remain in a safe position when detonating a bomb.
"That is the drive in all of our projects. We work on robots with the sole purpose to save lives," said Hayden. "That makes it very easy to go to work every day."
The control system is a five-channel remote with dual sticks and custom components inside.
The controller can send and receive signals as well as receive color-video feedback, and it is actually the most expensive part of the whole robot reconnaissance system, and one that any video-gaming enthusiast is capable of operating.
The monster-truck part of the system is less expensive and is considered disposable. It may be destroyed in a blast, but the controller can be used again and again.
Each tethered robot system costs about $2,500, compared to about $100,000 each for other models now used by the military.
Parts for the robots include a $50 Sony PlayStation monitor, a $120 camera, a $200 controller, a $330 chassis and other parts.
It cost a total of $450,000 to develop the robot idea, including construction of the first prototypes, eight of which will be used in field tests.
One of Wattenburg's early inventions in the 1960s included a simple and inexpensive device for testing nuclear weapons, which became part of underground nuclear test ban treaties.
He also worked to find solutions to problems associated with the Gulf War, like the hundreds of oil-well fires in Kuwait after the war and all of the minefields left after wars.
Other successful solutions included ways for the military to drop food and supplies to refugees in hostile areas without the use of parachutes that could be seen and targeted by hostile forces.
Although his idea wasn't used to help Iraqis in the Gulf War, it later proved effective in saving the lives of refugees in Bosnia.
Most recently, Wattenburg has been involved in homeland security, such as the protection of suspension bridges from terrorist attacks.
He and another Livermore scientist found the anchor points of these bridges to be vulnerable to even a small amount of explosives, and their solution was implemented on Bay Area bridges within two months of the 9/11 attacks.
About this same time, another of his well-publicized inventions was televised.
It was a truck-stopping device, which can safely be used by the highway patrol to stop trucks full of hazardous materials.
"Dr. Bill," as he is known by many backyard inventors and kitchen scientists in the Bay Area, can be heard on KGO Radio, 810 AM, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 p.m.-1 a.m.
On the air is where he shares simple solutions to complex problems with his audience. He answers questions about everything from auto mechanics to molecular physics.
Wattenburg earned a doctorate in electrical engineering, taught at Berkeley, and founded several high-tech companies over the years.
He performed a lot of research for the government and was instrumental in guidance computer design for NASA's Apollo moon missions.
Wattenburg remains active in the scientific community.
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