Bot Bomb Buddies

It was a worst-case scenario for Specialist Five Doug “Dusty” Rhodes one bloody day in Vietnam. Vietcong snipers were targeting Rhodes and two fellow soldiers, one of whom was standing on a land mine while the other was attempting to place a pin in the device to keep it from exploding. Rhodes, who was later awarded a Bronze Star for heroism, ran to an open area and drew fire while the device was disarmed; and all three men escaped.

Fast forward more than three decades. Today’s soldiers in places like Afghanistan and Iraq are no less heroic, but the twenty-first-century EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) devices they have on their side do the dual duties of both drawing fire and disarming explosive devices-all without exposing humans to the dangers they so routinely handle.

No doubt about it: “Robots in Iraq save lives,” says Sgt. First Class Jeff Sarver, who has trained with and deployed EOD robots in Iraq, Bosnia, Korea and the U.S.

“The most impressive thing I’ve seen a robot do was to unzip a suicide vest off a suicide bomber and then take the vest off,” recounts Sarver, stationed at Fort McCoy (Wisconsin) and recently returned from service abroad. He describes the kind of multitasking “buddy” that will take the bullet for you, every time— and diffuse a bomb with one (mechanical) arm tied behind its back, so to speak.


Robot names are exotic: PackBot, ANDROS, Vanguard, ODIS, SWORDS, TALON. But they’re all business. This robotic corps can wade through a foot of sewer water, climb stairs and over rubble, find and defuse old ordnance, identify a “false exhaust” in the undercarriage of a terrorist’s car. They can ferret out and neutralize biohazards, radiation and explosive devices hidden in buildings, holes in the ground, wet concrete, even in a pile of corpses.

Here’s a rundown of the capabilities of some of the robotic EOD devices currently in use by U.S. armed forces in military hotspots overseas. (Of course, some capabilities overlap, but this listing will demonstrate the incredible versatility of our robotic EOD corps as a whole.)

PackBot, manufactured by iRobot, weighs less than 24 kilograms, and once offloaded from its backpack can be deployed in less than two minutes. It can worm its way into sewers and other dangerous and constricted spaces covered with anything from slick tile to gooey mud. With eight interchangeable payload modules, it senses chemical and biological hazards, detects mines, deploys GPR (ground penetrating radar) and reaches as far as two meters in any direction while providing eyes and ears for its remote operators.

The ANDROS line of robots manufactured by REMOTEC (a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman) is as versatile as a circus family. The Mark V-A1, a heavy-duty vehicle with a unique articulated track, can climb 45 degree stairs and plow over obstacles as high as 24 inches. It has a manipulator arm, gripper, TV cameras and audio, and lights. Its littler brothers, the F6A and the Mini-ANDROS II, are scaled-down models that can get through tighter spaces like airplane aisles and allow quick tool change-outs while still tackling tough terrains. The largest, strongest, wheeled ANDROS is the Wolverine, an environmentally-sealed unit that can operate in high temperatures and humidity to facilitate both remote viewing and delicate manipulation tasks. Finally, over 500 ANDROS Wheelbarrow units deployed in 40 countries have the ability to change center of gravity, neutralize landmines and carry tools like disruptors and equipment to detect explosive and chemical dangers. All the ANDROS vehicles can be controlled from a distance via radio control, fiber optic cable reel, or portable cable reel. Typical price for an ANDROS: $80,000-plus each.

Vanguard(TM) robots such as the MKII can slip under the bumper of a suspicious vehicle to inspect for the full range of CBRNE – chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive –threats. It can fit in the trunk of a police car or deploy from a military air drop. Its laptop computer-based command control unit responds to keystroke or joystick and the robot boasts an articulated arm, Proparms disrupters, and night surveillance cameras. It can convert from tracks to wheels in a matter of minutes.

ODIS (Omni-Directional Inspection System), developed by the U.S. Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), is a robot system for detecting explosive devices. Described as “a hovercraft on wheels,” it can move forward, backwards, right or left and rotate its camera and lights separately or in combination. Even operators with minimal training can, with ODIS’s help, identify out-of-place wires or false exhaust pipes underneath a suspicious vehicle. To protect against suicide bombers, a camera mast system allows inspection from a distance and communicates with a “palm-computer based translator system” to let ODIS interact with personnel to verify identifications and relay instructions to vehicle drivers.

TALON (TM) robots (developed by Foster-Miller) offer cutting-edge sensing ability for chemical, gas, radiation, and heat with readings that can be accessed simultaneously, remotely and in real time by means of a single integrated hand-held display (think multiple windows.) The transmitting unit sniffs out everything from gamma radiation to pepper spray and can measure 50 kinds of gas. The robot itself is man-portable and its unmatched speed can pace a running soldier. It can plow through snow and surf and isn’t daunted by concertina wire or rock piles. TALON robots have completed more than 20,000 EOD missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

SMWS (Small Mobile Weapons System) TALON robots carry mounts for everything from shotguns, Barrett 50-caliber rifles and M240 machine guns to grenade launchers and M202 anti-tank rocket systems. In fact, “Time” magazine recognized TALON’s weaponized robot, SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System) as one of the most amazing inventions of 2004, with the warning, “Insurgents, be afraid.” Operators can stand up to 1000 meters away to operate the units, which cost between $150,000 to $230,000 each.


With that kind of price tag, you can bet repairs and spare parts are a big issue. A typical, repairable robot will complete more than 1000 missions. In the Near East, sand and oil are as much enemies to the machines as the bad guys are to US soldier, meriting the observation that one day’s work in Iraq for a robot is equal to a year’s worth stateside. Thus, parts salvage and quick repairs urge priority for Iraq’s Joint Robotic System Repair Station, which has seen robots return with little left but the tracks.

But they’re tough little droids. TALON, for instance, boasts that after the 2001 World Trade Center Attack, its robotics units withstood 45 straight days of being decontaminated twice a day without the electronics failing. One TALON, the manufacturer claims, has been blown up three times but is back in combat with new arms, wiring and cameras.

Another, riding on the roof of a Humvee which was crossing a bridge over a river in Iraq, was blown off into the water. To the delight of its handlers, its heavily-damaged control unit was able to direct the TALON to drive itself up out of the river and back to him. Now, that’s maximizing resources.

Does this mean that soldiers will become less important or even obsolete as the robotics technology accelerates? Some think so, including Project Alpha, a U.S. Joint Forces Command analysis group, which predicts that by 2025, autonomous battlefield robots will be the rule, not the exception. But contrast that thinking to a recent incident reported in Stars and Stripes in which a group of engineers and armor soldiers of 1st Battalion, 13th Armor Regiment were patrolling near Camp Taji, Iraq.

They became suspicious of a hollowed-out log that turned out to contain artillery wires. As a wheeled robot went down to blow up the log while the soldiers stayed at a safe distance, an insurgent remotely detonated a second bomb nearby, and a third bomb was discovered. The pattern of the second and third bombs was designed to catch the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Soldiers as they investigated the first. The bad guy may have been smarter than the robot, but turned out to be not as smart as the soldiers who learned from the experience.

The lesson was unmistakable: Technology is great. But not just the technology has to keep up with the enemy, so do the humans. They’re not only the ones who invent, service, and implement the machines: When bombs are the issue, humans have to be right every time, because soldiers are irreplaceable to the ones who love them.


Many new robotic devices are being developed for battlefield use. For instance, although the military currently uses unmanned surveillance airplanes operated by humans by remote control, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is developing something more sophisticated. Its $4-billion, five-year program aims to develop networked autonomous aircraft (J-UCAS) that can fly in formations and identify targets on which to drop bombs. Such devices will be impervious to human error factors caused by such things as fatigue and G-force while flying coordinated missions at up to 700 kilometers per hour.

Honeywell recently tested the MAV, or Micro Air Vehicle, a tiny (14-pound) DARPA project that operates via a ducted fan which has the engine and propeller inside a composite tube that serves as the flight surface. With a two-cylinder gasoline engine, it can “hover and stare” in ways that fixed-wing devices cannot, allowing it to deploy cameras and chemical sensors, flying up to 10,500 feet in altitude.

Army-funded researchers are developing an unmanned ambulance. The 3500-pound REV, or Robotic Extraction Vehicle, can drag wounded soldiers to safety and shelter them on two stretchers with life-support systems under its armored exterior as they prepare for evacuation. And Sandia National Laboratories has successfully tested an EDS (Explosive Destruction System) that internalizes explosions and contains the blast, vapor, and fragments; as well as treats and destroys biohazards such as anthrax.

For Sgt. First Class Sarver, improvements for EOD can’t come too soon. “People have walked on the moon and we’re still working with robots that have so much potential,” he says. His solution: let the present EOD robot-producing companies put their heads together to make a super-robot that has the speed of the TALON, the weight and frame of the ANDROS, the optics and configurations of the PackBot.

Then, says, Sarver, “you’d have a really nice robot.”