June 02, 2012      

Long after the troops have gone home and battle scared landscapes have begun to heal, war still goes on underground, carried out in small, tragic vignettes as a farmer plows a field or children walk to school.

“More than 20 million land mines are scattered in war-plagued Iraq, representing twenty-five percent of the world’s unexploded land mines,” reports Iraq’s environment minister, Kamal Hussein Latif.

Most were planted randomly and there are no maps as to their locations

Land mine

Robots are not just being developed to help with labor-intensive tasks in the home, office and in warehouses and assembly lines; they are also being used to identify and remove land mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Several companies are building robots for use by the military in former conflict zones around the world.

?We earned our stripes after 9/11 when some DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] robots were sent down to New York City to evaluate the structural integrity of the World Trade Center and the wreckage after [the planes struck the buildings] to determine if they were structurally sound for first responders and rescuers to go in,?? says Tim Trainer, vice president of Operations for the Government and Industrial Robots division at iRobot.

Then iRobots went into Afghanistan in the early days of the conflict, he says. ?We were able demonstrate how it was much safer to send a robot into a cave to do an assessment of what might be in them and we got a toehold with the EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] community, which saw wider application when IED and land mine fears increased in Iraq and Afghanistan.?

Today iRobot has 4,500 of its PackBot, SUGV, Warrior and FirstLook ground robots being used by the military to identify and neutralize IEDs and land mines for the EOD mission, which is responsible for the route clearance. Trainer says there is ?very high demand? for them in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The robots are also being used by the military?s engineering community, which Trainer says is charged with getting forces safely from one location to another. ?Now [robots are] in the infantry community to provide that standoff range,?? he says, ?and go into hazardous and unknown areas and provide assistance to that infantry operator and understand if there is a hostile threat or not when driving into a village.?

iRobot PackBot

The 510 PackBot is a multipurpose robot used by the EOD and engineering community. It weighs approximately 60 pounds, depending what is attached to it, such as sensors and arms, and is fully modular and interoperable, Trainer says.

The SUGV (Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle) is a lightweight, 30-pound robot that Trainer says has been used in Afghanistan with dismounted operations. ?This can be carried by folks off road and then be used to investigate and or neutralize potential hazards out there.? The SUGV ?can interrogate vehicles from a safe distance without having to have a soldier in close proximity to that vehicle or person being interrogated,?? he notes.

The 110 FirstLook is iRobot?s latest robot, and has been in testing with the U.S. Army for production in early 2012. It is geared at infantry troops who are walking and at five pounds, is designed to fit in a canteen pouch in a backpack. ?It can be thrown into an unknown situation and provide audio and video of that situation so if [a soldier] is going into village, it can throw into first or second story window and provide surveillance of that room.?

Also used at Fukushima to clean up radioactive debris and to determine radiation levels

Another of iRobot?s new robots is the 710 warrior platform, which weighs 350 to 500 pounds depending on what is attached to it. The robot has a robust arm of approximately two meters that can lift up to 220 pounds, Trainer says. It is either driven by itself or by vehicle to a scene, and then offloaded to perform a mission, he says.

For example, two warrior prototypes were sent to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, to clean up radioactive material and debris. They are also screening to determine radiation levels within the plant, Trainer says, adding that the warriors were the first to go inside the damaged reactors.

The robots range in price depending on their size, add-ons and how many are purchased, but are ?generally in $100,000 range,? he says.

510 PackBot

While Trainer says there are no figures available on how many land mines and IEDs the robots have neutralized and removed, he says the number is high.

In iRobot?s museum, there is a robot named Scooby Doo, named by a solider who fought in Iraq, which had 19 painted World War II-style pictures on one side, he says. The 19 hash marks on the robot indicate it had neutralized or exploded 19 devices, Trainer says. ?On the 20th, the robot gave its life for its operator and was not reparable and ended up in our museum, so I?d say that?s a pretty good return on investment.?

Rolling into conflict zones

Humanistic Robotics, Inc. develops rollers that are used on tanks and bulldozers, as well as robotics systems and payloads, says Samuel Reeves, co-founder and president. Reeves and his partner came out of the humanitarian demining field, working for the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) and spent time in hotspots such as Bosnia and Croatia. ?We saw the prevalence of World War II and Cold War era neutralization tools like rollers that blow up land mines and pressure-sensitive IEDs,?? Reeves says. ?We came out of our time there as researchers thinking there should be more effective neutralization tools.?

Rollers are treated as weights that need to be put on ground, he maintains, but says military personnel don?t pay attention to how the weight is controlled. ?The roller disk needs to have a precisely tuned suspension or a way of controlling it and a way of staying on the ground and effectively tracking the terrain.?

Economical unmanned control systems with third-party software and third-party sensors

Humanistic Robotics has designed a roller that is one component of its total SCAMP Control System. Using some of their own money and with funding from the federal government, the company redesigned the mine roller concept, which Reeves says has tested at over 99.6% effectiveness in three types of soil. ?Then we realized we needed something to push it around with,?? he says, and they developed the Terex vehicle.

However, the Terex needs to be driven by a human, so the company is developing an add-on control system, which enables an unmanned operation remotely using video. The vehicle is also being shrunk down and ruggedized, he adds.

Their focus is on ?creating technologies that can be spread across many different applications with a certain amount of openness with flexibility and modularity,?? he says. ?We saw too many systems for demining only so there were no economies of scale and as a result, had high costs.? Their unmanned controlled systems are designed so that third-party software, third-party sensor packages and upgraded control units can be added, Reeves says.

The Terex is made in a large scale so it is being sold for between $60,000 and $70,000. Humanistic Robotics has a contract with the Army to produce three more versions of its control system and to make the roller ?go faster and still get good performance as it goes faster,?? Reeves says.

Digger

Other companies and organizations that are focused on removing leftover land mines and IEDs include Digger DTR, a Swiss non-governmental group that has developed a robotic minesweeper called the Digger D-3 for humanitarian demining. The D-3?s spinning tiller is made up of 26 Tungsten hammers to penetrate about 10 inches into the ground, the depth at which land mines are typically buried. It is made up of steel plates controlled by an operator with a remote control unit.

QinetiQ North America has a fleet of military robotics, including the TALON family of remote-controlled robots that the company says were also used at Ground Zero as well as to dismantle IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq.

iRobot?s Trainer says the IED/land mine challenge is continually evolving, and the need for robots to dismantle and remove them is only going to increase, especially ?as counters to those threats are developed and fielded [and] the enemy?s devices tactics defeats those measures.

Computer mapping of mine fields

So other counter measures need to be implemented,?? he says. There are also some tasks on the ground robots can?t do, such as detonation capabilities, Trainer says.

Some of what the company is working on includes trying to figure out how their lighter robots can be carried in rough terrain. ?You can?t get folks to carry a robot on a 10-day mission,?? Trainer says. On longer, dismounted missions, soldiers cannot carry the weight associated with traditional 60-pound robots, hence the need for lighter ones.? But that means performance reductions.

?Operators want a robot that weighs nothing and can lift everything and has enough battery power to last forever,?? Trainer notes. ?So we have to figure out how to reach that sweet spot.?

See RBR50: iRobot

See RBR50: QinetiQ