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Science & Tech

Sentry gun sees, computes and shoots

BU grad’s robotics company takes aim at investors

Aaron Rasmussen (CAS’05, COM’05), designer of an optical-sensing sentry gun.

What began as a BU student’s summer project could become one of the military’s next forays into automated weaponry.

Last summer, Aaron Rasmussen (CAS’05, COM’05) decided to use the skills he’d learned in the computer science department’s Image and Video Computing class to build a robotic sentry gun that tracks and shoots any moving target detected by its electronic eye. Rasmussen has since gained an established business partner, incorporated as USMechatronics, and is scheduled to show off his gun to potential investors, including military contractors, next month in Palm Springs, Calif.

“The main idea [over the summer] was just to get some publicity for myself as I entered the job market,” says Rasmussen, who graduated in December with degrees in both computer science and advertising. His decision to develop an automated sentry gun was partly inspired by stories from a friend serving in Iraq as the turret gunner on a Humvee. 

“I thought, my friend is risking is life for no apparent reason,” Rasmussen says. He built a BB-gun prototype using parts designed for remote-control cars and lazy susans. His teenaged brother, Ezra, helped with construction and gallantly volunteered as target practice.

Rasmussen’s marketing education proved as valuable as his computer science skills when he put up a Web site about the project. The site drew a lot of attention, including the eye of Brian Mullins, cofounder and cochairman of SEIS Group, a California automation and robotics company.

“I was very impressed with what [Rasmussen] did with limited resources and just some inspiration,” says Mullins, who regularly monitors techie news Web sites for innovations, but very rarely comes across inventions with as much promise as Rasmussen’s project. “Once every couple of years, you might find something like this,” he says. In October, Mullins flew Rasmussen out to Southern California to meet with him, and the two formed USMechatronics, with Mullins as the new company’s president and Rasmussen as its chief technical officer. With Mullins’ backing, Rasmussen developed a more precise and functional live-fire prototype, which will be unveiled at next month’s investors’ meeting.

Rasmussen is aware of the dangers inherent in removing human intelligence from a decision to use lethal force, and he is working on ways to minimize the risk of unintended harm. As a start, the gun is designed to give vocal warnings, and it delays before firing. The new prototype includes a feature that would loop the gun’s video and analysis of a potential threat to a remote human operator who would ultimately decide whether to fire. 

Plus, Rasmussen and Mullins believe there’s a large potential market for use of the technology with nonlethal ammunition, such as pellets or even water, including in outdoor paintball courses, police or military training, or on farms to drive away deer and other animals from crops. 

“I’m always paying attention to the robotics industry,” says Mullins,   “and I know that in the next 10 or 20 years, applications for this kind of vision-based intelligence robotics is really going to explode.”