NORWAY — Off a rural country road, up a steep dirt driveway, rests a white geodesic dome — think Epcot, in miniature — jammed with wall-to-wall tech. And, oddly, dragons.

Though maybe that’s not so odd given the stone gargoyle perched above the main entrance.

In here, Bill Lovell builds robots.

An easy-going Vietnam veteran with three bachelor’s degrees in engineering, Lovell and his wife moved to the Maine woods about 10 years ago.

On his docket last week: plans for robots that step in after a disaster; robots capable of 3-D printing, then building, a 10-foot-tall wall out of concrete; robots designed to rake up around a horse farm.

Any and all can be autonomous — provided you think that’s a good thing.


“Most people like to drive them because they don’t trust the robot,” said Lovell, 63.

He shakes his head at those people.

One of his industrial models is being tested right now in a New Zealand mine. He says U.S. federal mine inspectors have another for testing, a little bot built to poke around for life after a collapse.

He’s full of ideas, but not, currently, full of orders. Lovell hasn’t had a robot sale in two years. That doesn’t particularly bother him.

He’s going to build, build, build until one takes off. Or not.

“To me, it’s the only thing worth doing anymore,” he said.


Professor Michael Gennert, head of Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Robotics Engineering Program, has known Lovell for about 10 years.

“He’s just this fabulous engineer turning out some really impressive devices, basically by himself,” Gennert said. “It’s quite the nice story, isn’t it? Here’s David among the Goliaths. He knows how to weld, he knows how to cut steel, he knows how to write programs and put a board together, none of which is impossibly hard, but not very many people can do it all. He understands this robot from the smallest screw to the highest-level software architecture — that’s an unusual combination.”

Space or bust

Lovell grew up in Southern New Hampshire and headed off to college in 1971 to be an aerospace engineer. His plans were cut short by the military draft. He joined the U.S. Air Force, spent 1973 in Vietnam and stayed in the service until 1982.

He earned degrees in mechanical, electronic and industrial engineering while stationed at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois.

“The degrees were the fact that the military would pay for it and I was bored,” he said. “Most guys went out drinking, partying. Central Illinois didn’t hold a lot to do.”


Lovell said he tried out to be an astronaut in the late 1970s when NASA opened up trials to members of the Air Force.

“There had to be 50 or 60 of us in Houston for testing,” he said. “There were all sorts of qualifications; I had just finished my first bachelor’s, (so) I at least made the cut with my degree done, which was a requirement. My roommate was Ron McNair from the Challenger accident. He lived up to what everybody used to say about him: This man was a scream; he was a comedian. We had fun.”

McNair, a civilian trying out at the time, got in. Lovell, and most of the others, didn’t.

Later, Lovell would work on designs to submit to NASA for what he described as a “system to take a Saturn 1B booster and convert it into an orbiting payload holder (for) micro-gravity experiments. What I found out later, what they were more interested in was my station-keeping method and all the communications within the whole booster (that) were all done with fiber optics.”

And that’s how he talks. Fast. Tech. Deeply over-your-head at any moment.

Workshop theft and sabotage scuttled those plans, according to Lovell, but didn’t derail his science.


The post-Apocalyptic movie “Silent Running” had come out in 1972 and featured three robots, Huey, Dewey and Louie. They were cute, a little like half-triangular trash cans on two legs, with actors inside.

“Everybody fell in love with these little guys,” he said.

Lovell watched the movie and thought, “I could do that.”

“I was looking more at the autonomous work level for mining, stuff like that. I was looking more for robots that were going to do jobs where humans really didn’t belong,” Lovell said.

He went to the room converted into a lab in his house and got to building.

Field work


He started his company, c-Link Systems, in Georgia in 1997: “The little ‘c’ is out of physics, the speed of light” and then Link for “fiber-optic links, speed-of-light links.”

Most people don’t get the reference, especially after he pivoted c-Link’s specialty from fiber optics to robotics in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. That was a disaster that could have used more robots.

“You’ve got a pile of lumber there that in some cases has asbestos mixed in, all your waste treatment plants were flooded out, so you’ve got basically wastewater residue everywhere. A robot doesn’t care, he doesn’t get sick,” Lovell said. Robots could have been clearing “out the broken material and stacking it up and moving it off to the side. They used big track hoes, but again, you’ve got a human in there. He’s either going to have to wear a respirator or he’s taking a chance.”

In 2006, he moved to Maine to be closer to his parents who live on Bear Pond in Waterford. His younger brother, Dana, an aircraft inspector in Bangor, travels down to pitch in at c-Link when he can.

Lovell started working with the local school system in 2011. Every Wednesday, 10 students from Oxford Hills Middle School spend the day in the dome and an attached work space designing their own autonomous robots, with his help, to scare off deer sneaking vegetables at Roberts Farm, part of the school’s Quest program.

He’s also mentored other schools’ robotics programs and has several robotics curricula offered up at the National Robotics Education Foundation website.


“It was a natural link to try to connect him and the middle school together,” said SAD 17 Superintendent Rick Colpitts. “It definitely is an opportunity for kids to get more engaged in real-life, real-world scenarios and see how things like math and algebra can connect. It then makes sense in the field.”

At the students’ first public display in December, Lovell said, people weren’t wild about the deer-scaring robot’s shape — “like a rolling, large-scale lady bug” — so they’re back at work.

Students are shooting to have it done by mid-June.

Meanwhile, Lovell is also at work.

“This is the bad boy,” he said, walking into his shop and introducing the latest version of the robot series he’s named Forager. “This poor guy has been cut, whacked, re-welded so many times as we make changes.”

Forager is a low-slung, 6-foot-long aluminum chassis loaded with 28 computer processors. It’s battery-powered and runs on either wheels or tracks. Lovell has designed 80 different “payloads,” or features, to sit on top that switch out, depending on the job.


Mechanical arms. A dump body. Infrared cameras to look for heat signatures after a disaster. This summer he’s outfitting it with a 3-D printer to put his concrete-wall-building plan to the test.

It takes 14 weeks to weld one chassis. Models start at $27,000 without the payload. Lovell’s trying to reduce that time and that price. He’s built three this size so far: The one in his shop, one he donated to a school and the one in use in the New Zealand mine.

That company was going to test it for three months; it’s been almost a year.

“It was in a cave-in. They dragged its ugly tail out (and replaced some dented parts),” he said. “Last time I heard, it was back in the tunnel having a good time.”

Again, he’s not bothered by the delay, or that it hasn’t officially yet resulted in a sale.

“It’s still running, that’s all I care about now,” Lovell said. “The joke used to be, ‘We’ll make it up in volume.’ No, we won’t make it up in volume.”


Even that idea for the NASA orbiting payload holder, “I wanted to see if they were interested; I was going to hand them everything, which is why I probably get in trouble with a lot of people. ‘You’re not doing this for the money?’ No. I’m not doing this for the money,” he said.

Lovell has taken Forager down to Worcester Polytech’s TouchTomorrow festivals. Gennert has been up to Oxford Hills Middle School to talk to Lovell’s students.

Gennert considers Lovell’s attitude that of a “maker”: “What really drives them is to change the world and make it better by inventing useful things. (Bill) definitely falls into that camp,” he said.

“There’s often a little constellation of people who share this passion and work together or share ideas,” he said. “It’s pretty uncommon to have a singleton like Bill out there on his own. He’s more like, it makes you think of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in Jobs’ basement making the first Apple computer, more like that. But they wanted to eventually sell a lot of them and make a business out of it and I don’t think that’s Lovell’s plan, exactly. He wouldn’t mind the sales, but that’s not driving him.”

Horse, meet robot

In addition to the ever-evolving Forager, Lovell is at work on a new robot, planned for late summer/early fall, called the Equi-bot. It’s a 5-foot-long, 32-inch-wide robot that he’s prototyping for a former high school classmates’ horse farm in Amherst, N.H.


The 60-acre, 30-horse Walnut Hollow Farm has sizable indoor and outdoor arenas. Lovell’s designing the robot with payloads to rake up and grade the ground, move shavings or snow and even look for woodchuck holes and fill them — the type of labor it’s tough to get people to do, said Elliot Pratt, who owns the farm with his wife, Rowena McMahon, Lovell’s former classmate.

“I don’t have a lot of experience with these things — in fact, none at all. It’s hard for me to envision it, but if it works, it would be great,” Pratt said. “If we had a robot, I can put it loose in (the barn) at night when nobody else is using it in the off-hours. We’d have nice, fresh footing in the morning and I wouldn’t have had to do a thing except turn it on and let it go.”

Lovell hopes to test it at Walnut Hollow and then market it to other farms later this year, pricing the Equi-bot between $5,000 and $6,000. He plans to double the size of his rural machine shop this summer to accommodate what he hopes are sales.

“It’s a good direction,” he said. “It’s actually the direction we’ve always wanted to go, building bots that are going to help people.”

One mine, horse farm or deer-scare at a time.

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