A safer perspective in Iraq

A Sarasota company won a contract with the military for devices that helps detect roadside bombs from a distance.

Published June 21, 2006

Marines patrolling for roadside bombs in Iraq will soon have a new detection device, developed by a company in Sarasota.

In late May, Gyrocam Systems LLC won a $43-million contract to provide the military’s Counter-IED  (improvised explosive device) project with 67 of its triple-sensor cameras. Twenty-seven of the units will be in Iraq by the end of summer.

Gyrocam’s cameras will be mounted on telescoping masts on armored vehicles. The cameras have 360-degree coverage and transmit images in high-resolution color, heat-sensitive infrared and night-vision.

“Using the infrared, soldiers can look at garbage 100 to 200 yards away and detect an IED,” said Ken Sanborn, 53, Gyrocam’s founder, president and chief executive. “We’ve created bionic-person capability.”

Sanborn, whose company beat out several larger competitors to win the Marine C–orps contract, said his claim has been proved in the field. For the past 18 months, three of Gyrocam’s camera systems have been in use by the Army in Iraq.

The company’s vice president of special projects, Joe Stark, spent about three months in early 2005 both training troops to use the system in Kuwait and monitoring its performance in Iraq.

“The systems contributed to finding a significant number of IEDs,” said Stark, who saw the convoys off in the morning and back each night.

“And the platoons using the cameras lost no lives and received no Purple Hearts.”
That is significant because roadside bombs have been the biggest cause of deaths and injuries in Iraq

Until now, patrolling soldiers have been expected to find the devices, which are often hidden in old tires or tucked under piles of grass, with the naked eye or by peering through binoculars, while their armored vehicle is in motion.

With the Gyrocam, the soldier never has to stop or leave the vehicle to inspect a suspicious object. The image is transmitted from a safe distance to the camera’s operator inside the vehicle; if it looks like a bomb, an explosive ordnance disposal team is called in to disarm it.

Sanborn said the only incident involving the Gyrocam system occurred when the soldiers forgot they no longer had to drive up to an IED to make identification.

“They got 6 feet from one,” he said. “It damaged the vehicle but the guys didn’t get a scratch.”

The camera system proved to have another valuable use. Because the insurgents who set the IEDs are often waiting nearby, images recorded by the Gyrocam can be used to track down those responsible.

Gyrocam’s multimillion-dollar award from the Defense Department marks the latest transformation for a company once known as Aerial Films that Sanborn started 11 years ago.

Formerly a staff director and cameraman with ABC’s 20/20, Sanborn decided to develop his own gyro-stabilized camera in 1991 after getting fed up with a popular model on the market that continually malfunctioned.

By 1996, he was building helicopter-mounted cameras and operating an eye-in-the-sky news service for the major networks, including the NBC affiliate in New York.

In 2000, Sanborn, who was raised in Lakeland, relocated the company from Morristown, N.J., to a parcel adjacent to Sarasota International Airport.

Attached to the new two-story office building is a hangar where Gyrocam installs its cameras in customers’ aircraft.

Aerial Films’ primary business went into a slump after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We weren’t allowed to fly over New York City for about three months,” Sanborn said. “And people in New York didn’t care about the traffic in New Jersey.”

With the nation in a high-security mind-set, Sanborn quickly spied another potential market for his cameras: homeland security and law enforcement. Among its early customers was the Tampa Police Department, which spent about $2-million in 1999 on the company’s helicopter-mounted cameras, which allow police to conduct nighttime surveillance and read license plates from 2,000 feet in the air.

Sanborn’s work with the Tampa police resulted in some negative publicity in late 2003. Just days before he retired, Tampa Police Chief Bennie Holder agreed to act as consultant for Sanborn’s company.

Holder, who had recommended the purchase of Sanborn’s equipment years earlier, also posed in uniform in an ad for the company before he left office.

Holder denied any wrongdoing at the time, saying Aerial’s systems had been chosen in a competitive bid.

Sanborn, whose biggest customer to date has been the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, recently dismissed the controversy, saying Holder is no longer a consultant for the company.

Sanborn’s business underwent a major change in late 2003 when it partnered with a large foreign investor.
Aerial Films filed for bankruptcy and its assets were bought by newly formed Gyrocam, which is jointly owned by Sanborn and Jagen Investments Pty Ltd., a $1-billion Australian investment fund.

With the evolution of the company came a change in tactics. While the business had traditionally focused on putting high-resolution viewfinders on helicopters, airplanes and boats, Sanborn tried something different when he heard about the military’s counter-IED project.

“They were looking for a way to fly over the roads and detect anomalies,” said Sanborn, adding that such aerial tactics are still being developed. “But I thought, 'Why not put the camera on a vehicle?’ People thought I was nuts.”

A prototype model of a Gyrocam mounted on a GMC Suburban was first taken to a Defense department meeting in Washington in April 2003. After 18 months of testing by the military, Sanborn’s company got a $1-million contract from the Army for the three systems now in use.

In addition to the recently awarded Marine contract, Gyrocam is working on a classified project with the military in Iraq.

Gyrocam’s fast turnaround on the Marine Corps contract is due to a calculated risk Sanborn took more than a year ago.

He said he invested more than $20-million in inventory, ordering hard-to-get gyro assemblies, lenses and motors so he would have them on hand.

Sanborn is hopeful that the military will order 500 to 600 camera systems over the next three to four years. Such growth could mean the doubling of Gyrocam’s workforce, which now numbers about 45. The company is already planning a major expansion of its manufacturing and hangar space.

“Sometimes business is about doing what your gut tells you,” Sanborn said.

“And I feel very passionately that this is a great opportunity to grow our business plus support the war fighter. And you don’t often get the chance in life to do both.”

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.