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Inventor's Robot Is a Big Hit on the Shooting Range

April 27, 1998|KATE DUNN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Dan Fetterly is a hands-on inventor who takes existing components, adds a few tweaks of his own, and puts the result to work in new and unexpected ways.

"I've always been a tinkerer," Fetterly said, "I think it's in my genes. People . . . never knew what I'd pull out of my knapsack. One time it was a global-positioning computer and a collapsible refrigerator."

The latest invention to emerge from Fetterly's "knapsack" is the Mad Robot, a remote-controlled target that can move like a clever, running human. Deceptively simple in appearance--just a wheeled platform with a vertical pole to which a variety of targets can be attached--the robot has added realism to weapons training.

The Mad Robot can carry up to 100 pounds and sport any kind of target, from a three-dimensional foam dummy for sniper training (or two dummies for hostage-suspect scenarios) to conventional paper or plastic targets. More significantly, it can dart in any direction at speeds up to 9 mph. It can even travel at a respectable rate over rough or muddy ground.

Unlike previous training devices, which moved only from side to side or forward and backward along a predetermined path, Fetterly's robot can duplicate the full range of suspect behavior. At the operator's discretion, it can charge forward, run away, dodge behind cover or leap out from around a corner.

The unpredictability and realism produces a level of stress in shooters that inevitably leads to mistakes--mistakes that are best made and overcome on the firing range instead of the street.

"You have to make the training much more stressful than you anticipate the officers ever encountering in real life," said Rangemaster Dan Palera of the Beverly Hills Police Department, which has had a Mad Robot for two months. "Repetitious, high-stress drilling forces the officers to commit the correct responses to muscle memory, and training with the robot really puts the pressure on."

Fetterly has developed three versions of his robot. The first two retail for $2,400 and are used in military and police training by clients such as the Navy's SEALs and the FBI. The third is a self-contained chassis that serves as the platform for a riding vehicle for disabled children. On Fetterly's drawing board is a much larger-scale platform, which the Israelis are interested in using to transport tank targets for bomber training. He is also in a joint venture with a Texas-based robotics company to combine a high-performance version of his chassis with the company's bomb-handling robot.

The response to the Mad Robot has been highly positive, which makes Fetterly worry that his young Venice-based company, United Service Associates Inc., will grow too quickly. The state Department of Corrections plans to buy a robot for each of its prisons this year, and two companies in Britain are vying to represent the device internationally.

Although Fetterly subcontracts out several of his components, he and one employee handle all of the assembly, testing and shipping. He is also responsible for promoting and demonstrating the device, providing technical support and designing enhancements.

"We're about to explode," Fetterly said, "so the most important thing I'm doing right now is rounding up the financing we need to expand."

Kate Dunn is a Los Angeles freelance writer. She can be reached at katedunn@earthlink.net

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

AT A GLANCE

Name: Dan Fetterly, 47

Job: President, United Service Associates inc.

Education: Engineering and business courses at Pacific Western and Arizona State universities; law enforcement courses at several Army and FBI training facilities

Experience: Army Special Forces (Green Berets), military and civilian police officer, , technical advisor and firearms handler for motion pictures and television

Web site: http://www.usasmog.com

Home: Venice

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