ON THE RIGHT TRACK

November 07, 2001 11:00 pm
Brad Troyer of Science Application International Corporation, Huntsville, Ala., operates The Gladiator as it moves along on Omnitracs in a field at the La Grande company's manufacturing site. (Observer photo/PHIL BULLOCK).
Brad Troyer of Science Application International Corporation, Huntsville, Ala., operates The Gladiator as it moves along on Omnitracs in a field at the La Grande company's manufacturing site. (Observer photo/PHIL BULLOCK).

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

About eight years ago, Dennis and Pamela Wilkinson came up with an idea for developing rubber tracking systems mainly for tractors.

The endeavor that started in the Wilkinsons ranch shop near Cove has become Omnitrac, a thriving, growing business with 30 employees and worldwide contracts for building rubber tracks.

The companys latest coup has been developing a tracking system for the prototype of a military vehicle designed to creep into places where soldiers cant go.

The Gladiator, being developed for the Marine Corps, was tested earlier this week in a field behind the Omnitrac building on East L Avenue. The vehicle that looks like a large toy tank climbed up and down high dirt mounds and over ruts, traveling about 15 miles per hour, as an operator stood at the edge of the field manipulating the controls. Larry Hennebeck, Gladiator project manager, said cameras on board allow the operator to operate as if he were sitting inside.

Were very pleased; all the indicators are very good, Dennis Wilkinson said. We know it will be successful.

Hennebeck also expressed satisfaction.

They did a great job, said the former Roseburg resident, who now works out of Alabama.

This is a concept vehicle, he said. The ultimate system wont look like this.

The 1,500-pound, armor-plated Gladiator would be armed with a machine gun and carry several cameras for surveillance. It would be capable of carrying a launcher with grenades, Hennebeck said.

Full production probably wont begin before 2007, he said. Each Gladiator will cost about $150,000, although research and development of the one vehicle has run considerably more than $1 million. Hennebeck declined to reveal the exact cost of the federally funded prototype.

The Gladiator is the most recent in a series of contracts that has taken Omnitracs products worldwide. The company has developed rubber tracking systems that operate under water and in the Arctic cold, and has built large tracking systems for Army Corps of Engineers projects, Pamela Wilkinson said.

Omnitrac builds only rubber tracking systems.

Were the only ones in the world doing exactly what were doing, she said. Weve created a product that nobody else has.

The Wilkinsons started in 1993 with no employees. Later they hired a welder-fabricator.

By Christmas of 1996, we had eight employees, Pamela Wilkinson said. We had to work two shifts, because we couldnt fit everybody into our shop. The farm dogs just went crazy with people coming and going.

The following February, the company moved to East L Avenue, where it now owns more than six acres.

Were expanding all the time, Pamela Wilkinson said. Our employees are like the marines: a few good men. It takes a special person to do this job.

One of their tracking systems took fiber optic equipment to the bottom of the ocean. Another system will be used to support seismic measuring systems for oil exploration in the Arctic.

We have a motto: If it moves, we can track it, Pamela Wilkinson said.