“John was always into the military,” says Brian Hart. He and his wife, Alma, were hoping their son would go to college, “but when 9/11 happened, he was sure,” Hart recalls. “He wanted to serve.” John enlisted in September 2002 at age 19, drawing a place in the 173rd Airborne Brigade. By July, he was on the front line in Iraq and quickly realized that the Army had come to war unprepared. “He called me and said, ‘Dad, we need body armor. Can you help?'” The next week, October 18, 2003, John and his commanding officer were killed in their unarmored humvee during a roadside ambush.

Landshark innovator main

After their son’s death, the Harts became the nation’s leading advocates for better protective gear for the troops. When they started, less than 2 percent of all humvees had armor plating; today, virtually all of them do. But Brian Hart didn’t stop at advocacy. With his brother Richard as chief product designer and start-up capital from John’s military benefits, the two founded Black-i Robotics. Their mission is to make robots capable of destroying IEDs, like the ones killing American troops. (Incredibly, it wasn’t the first time tragedy had moved the brothers to action. In 1996 they developed a now widely used bar-code tracking system for medicine after their father died from a lidocaine overdose caused by inscrutable packaging.)

This year, Black-i Robotics came out with a wheeled robot called the LandShark that can plow through soil to expose buried bombs and uses jets of water to detonate them. One was delivered to Boston’s Logan Airport in November to detonate suspected car bombs. Another will ship out to either Afghanistan or Iraq next year, part of a $800,000 contract with the U.S. Department of Defense.

Despite the early success, the Harts’ company remains a scrappy operation. That’s by design: Unlike competitors such as Foster-Miller and iRobot, which have offices nearby and sit on more than $500 million in contracts, Black-i Robotics has almost no overhead. The company’s headquarters, if you could call it that, is set in a strip of low-rent offices in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts.

The modest setup takes aim at spendthrift contractors and a lumbering military-procurement system. “Big contractors won’t wash their hands without a contract,” Hart says. “They can’t work like we do.” The LandShark is a humble rig fashioned from motors, off-the-shelf computers, a car battery and even an Xbox controller. Fully loaded, it costs less than $70,000—50 percent cheaper than its competitors. The more affordable the robot, the faster it can be made and the more likely it is to reach the front lines and save lives, Hart says. “That’s John’s legacy.”

The LandShark was named one of PopSci‘s top 100 innovations of the year. Read about it here, where you can also check out all of Best of What’s New 2008.