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July 26, 2011

Tomorrow's Bomb Squad

Talon robot
A soldier operates a Talon robot and a Remote Ordnance Neutralization System during a recent drill; APL leads a team working on the next generation of ordnance-disposal robots.
Photo: U.S. Navy

Engineers and computer scientists from APL's Biomedicine Business Area are leading an effort to build a fleet of robots able to detect and dispose of unexploded bombs, locate and destroy mines on land and under water, move ammunition stores, and clean up after munitions accidents.

But unlike the Department of Defense's current machines, this new family of robots will have interchangeable parts, improving the military's forensics-collection abilities and potentially saving DoD millions of dollars.

APL has assembled a team to build the machines that includes Robotics Engineering Excellence, Inc. of Pittsburgh; Northrop Grumman/Remotec of Clinton, TN; and Chatten Associates from West Conshohocken, PA. They met at the Laboratory on July 14 and finalized a plan to deliver the first demonstration model within 15 months.

The military has been using robots for explosives ordnance disposal for more than two decades. Its 2,500 robots are modified commercial items from three companies, which presents the military with a number of challenges, explains the Biomedicine Business Area's Michael Zeher, APL project manager for the Navy's Advanced Explosive Ordnance Disposal Robotic System (AEODRS) program.

"They are basically proprietary systems," he says. "So, one problem is that there are different architectures—logical, physical, and electrical—between the systems. There is no common controller among them, and the process of upgrading and enhancing the units is cumbersome and expensive."

In 2008, a Navy-led technology team (which included APL) began to lay the technical groundwork for robots with common physical, electrical, and logical interfaces. The goal was to enable interoperability at a level that had never before been executed.

"We explored the complexities and subtleties of what it would take to create this type of ‘plug and play' system for unmanned ground vehicles; everything from communications systems, human–robot interaction, manipulation, perception, and intelligence, to navigation, power, sensors, and tools," says John Bigelow, manager of the Biomedicine Branch.

"What has emerged from this effort is a vision for a family of systems that will include interoperability across the entire family, faster insertion of rapidly evolving technologies, decreased logistics footprint, and the ability for users to configure the systems to meet the needs of a particular mission."

The family of systems will include three different robots to address different operational scenarios. The Dismounted Operations system—the smallest of the three at 35 pounds—will be transported via backpack. It will have a 100-meter (about 330-foot) range, 6-hour battery endurance, and a manipulator arm capable of lifting up to 10 pounds. At 164 pounds, the Tactical Operation system will be most easily transported by vehicle, but two technicians could also carry it. It will have a 1,000-meter (3,300-foot) range and two manipulator arms, at least one of which will be able to grip, grasp, and pivot.

The Base/Infrastructure Operations system, weighing 750 pounds, will include the most advanced features of the smaller systems, and will be able to lift up to 300 pounds.

The machines will be designed so that a camera or sensor on the largest robot could be taken off and placed onto the small backpack-size system. A common control unit will direct all three robots, separately or simultaneously.