Semquest technology on Mars and in military

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Semquest has a $25 million contract to create a test mortar.

A small Colorado Springs company has had a part in the exploration of Mars — and now is working to improve testing for the military’s unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and its missile defense system.

In business for 12 years, Semquest is on the verge of a new $2.5 million contract to design a test mortar that would allow the military to inexpensively test its missile defense system. It already has a contract for laser testing for UAVs. And the Mars rover has a small electronic sensor, built by the company’s four employees, which serves as a safety monitor for Curiosity, currently sending back research about the red planet.

It adds up to some big contracts for the little company, located in a modest office building just off South Academy Boulevard.

Its first big project is known as BITS — or Beam Irradiative on Target System — and was 12 years in the making, said CEO and owner David Ward.

“It takes patience to work with the military; they don’t decide things quickly,” he said.

BITS is a target that allows the military to test lasers over and over — it won’t burn up the target.

“Usually those lasers burn everything in their path,” Ward said, showing a piece of metal that had been hit by a laser for only a few seconds. A hole is burned through the middle. “But the BITS can take lasers over and over — and send back information about the effectiveness, whether they’re exactly on target, even if there’s a jiggle in the beam.”

BITS is a prototype, and the military will take possession of it in early 2013, he said. He also hopes to be able to sell it to NATO or other U.S. allies.

In January, Semquest will start work on the prototype for a test mortar, Ward said. He’ll hire a mechanical engineer to help with the process. Basically, the mortar will be covered in optical receivers, able to receive information about missile defense systems.

Unlike the BITS, the mortar probably won’t be reusable.

“That would pose some interesting engineering questions,” Ward said. “Would it have a parachute? Would it break open? How would you land it? Right now, we’re dealing with questions about the electronics involved — how would a mortar receive information from the laser and send it back so we know how effective the anti-missile system really is?”

It’s important to the military to know, because testing mortars costs millions each time. It’s so expensive that the mortars are tested only a couple of times a year. But with Semquest’s proposed project, it could lower the cost of the laser tests, Ward said.

“And for the military, lowering costs is very important,” he said.

While BITS took more than a decade to come to completion, the Icharus system — christened by Semquest after the Greek mythological character who flew too close to the sun — only took a few years to attract the military’s attention.

Still, the looming threat of the fiscal cliff, and the potential trillions of dollars in cuts to the military’s budget, delayed the start of the project, Ward said.

“We were supposed to start on this months ago,” he said. “But they kept putting it off, and said that it was because of the sequester. It’s a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ with the military. But now we’re on track to start in January, and that’s exciting.”

Still, Semquest is looking for other clients, and seeking to create more commercially available products using its electronic sensors and electrical engineering expertise.

“It’s time to branch out,” Ward said. “We don’t want to be too dependent on the military — it’s hard to export military-level items, so we’re going to create more commercial products for a more stable customer base.”