Future weaponry

WASHINGTON — Entrepreneurs offered an array of whiz-bang gizmos and gadgets Wednesday that they hope the federal government will buy to transform their small businesses into a new terrorism-industrial complex.

The high-tech bazaar in a huge conference room in a Senate office building included displays from 50 small businesses that had vied for the right to show their wares to government purchasing agents, senators and congressional staffers.

“My cousin 007 would have his mouth water if he could walk through here and see what’s available,” quipped Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., referring to gadget-loving fictional spy James Bond.

Bethesda, Md., dentist Barry Mersky has developed a “tooth phone” where the sound bypasses the ears. Instead, sound is conveyed through the teeth along a bone pathway in the skull to the auditory parts of the brain.

“It’s the same principle as how you hear the sound of a carrot crunching,” he said.

He invited a reporter to push a wire against his tooth while speaking into a tape recorder. Then Dr. Mersky played the recording back through the wire to the tooth, the tooth tingles slightly as the sound, inaudible to anyone else, passed clearly to his brain.

For intelligence gathering, the system can be hidden inside the mouth with no visible wires, receiver or microphones, Mersky said. Helicopter pilots, who communicate amid deafening background noise, would find this not only more effective but safer for their hearing, he said.

Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, said he is counting on small businesses to come up with new methods for combating terrorism.

“If necessity is the mother of invention, then there certainly is no more urgent need than to protect our citizens, our institutions and our way of life from terrorism,” he told the exhibitors.

Jon Upham, a project engineer for Minnesota-based Infrared Solutions Inc., described to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., how his company’s heat-sensing cameras can zero in on vehicles or bodies moving in a restricted area and automatically record the movement while sending an alert by e-mail, telephone or pager.

Outside the convention hall, James P. Mayfield was having less luck in selling his GBA Hawk 4 Gyroplane Homeland Defender. Sitting on a trailer beside the Senate office building was an aircraft that lifts off with a rotor like a helicopter but is powered by a rear-thrust propeller.

The gyroplane has an infrared television camera attached to its nose that can transmit images in real time back to a base, Mayfield sees the craft as a tool for patrolling against terrorist attacks on power plants, dams, airports and railroads.

It is more efficient than a helicopter, he said.

He used it to fly missions for Olympic Public Safety Command at Salt Lake City last winter. But so far sales have not taken off. The Arizona-based company cut its production staff from 200 to 50.

The inventors and entrepreneurs knew they could not interest the government in buying unproven technology.

“In Washington, if it’s not off the shelf, they’re not buying,” said David Fine, president and CEO of Cy Terra Corp. of Waltham, Mass., who was displaying a hand-held machine that can detect both plastic and metal hidden objects that a terrorist might try to sneak into an airport. “There’s not much research and development money.”

The exhibition was aimed at promoting small business as much as fighting terrorism. Smaller businesses have trouble getting the attention of federal buyers.

“It’s hard to compete with the large corporations because they can spread their costs and undercut the small person,” said Pat Fisher, president of JANUS Associates, who has developed software that allows people to be identified by the sound of their voice. “I’m here to find partners as well as sales.”

Gil Klein is a staff writer for Media General’s Washington bureau.

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