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Monrovia Firm's $3,500 Gadget Will Guide U.S. Troops in Desert

December 16, 1990|FRANKI V. RANSOM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Soldiers used to march off to battle guided only by the humble compass. But U.S. Army troops will soon be negotiating the Saudi Arabian desert with the help of $3,500 hand-held satellite receivers made in Monrovia.

The Monrovia-based Magellan Systems Corp. was recently awarded a $2-million contract to send 592 of the devices--about the size of a mobile phone--to the Army's 1st Infantry Division, which is shipping out to the Persian Gulf this month from its base at Ft. Riley, Kan.

Similar devices made by other companies already are in use in the Persian Gulf.

"There was a shortage of this type of navigation system in the Army's inventory," said Mark Meseke, media relations officer for Ft. Riley and the 1st Infantry Division.

The Army bought the devices to make sure that its soldiers wouldn't get lost in the desert, he said. The made-in-Monrovia receivers will be distributed among the division's 11,500 soldiers.

To operate the device, a soldier presses the "position" button and punches in his approximate latitude and longitude, within 300 miles. The correct location then is displayed on a small screen at the top of the receiver. The device can pinpoint a location within 75 feet.

The receiver uses signals from four satellites to make its calculations. It provides information on longitude, latitude and altitude.

Magellan already has delivered 240 of the portable devices, said Randy D. Hoffman, the company's president and chief executive officer. The rest will be delivered Dec. 28.

Magellan also has contracts with the British Ministry of Defense and the Saudi Arabian frontier forces. Hoffman said France and Italy have also bought a few for their soldiers in the Middle East.

Dennis Degen, the company's sales operation manager, said Iraqi troops would be unable to pick up the satellite signals because they lack the receivers and the technological know-how to do so.

"We are not allowed to sell to countries that the federal government has a trade embargo against," Hoffman said. These countries include Iraq, Iran, North Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba and Libya, he said.

Magellan began designing the hand-held receivers for commercial use more than three years ago, when the company was established by six venture-capital finance companies. The firm, on East Huntington Drive, specializes in navigation equipment and employs 72 people from the San Gabriel Valley, Hoffman said. Hoffman said the company had sales totaling more than $15 million in 1990.

Since May, 1989, the company has sold 6,000 receivers of various kinds, including hand-held receivers for commercial boaters and professional surveyors.

Boaters use a device similar to the military model: It measures latitude and longitude and helps them determine which way to steer. The surveyor's model is hooked up to a computer that prints out information on an object's location.

Hoffman said Magellan has sold its products to the Armed Forces for a year and a half, and has talked with military sources about the problems soldiers are experiencing in the vast desert.

"It's easy to get lost and disoriented in the desert," he said. "It's like a sea of sand."

Hoffman said the $3,500 price tag is justified. "Compared to (the cost of) an Army vehicle, or whole units and platoons that get lost or destroyed," he said, "it's a significant life-saver . . . and very cost effective."

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