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Bomb Squads Leverage Advanced Robotics

The use of robotics is gaining traction relative to alternate methods for bomb and IED dismantling, but some bomb squads have hesitated to embrace the technology for several reasons. First, some robotics systems in use today date back to the 1990s, which from a functionality perspective means larger, less nimble units, smaller joysticks, confusing buttons, and limited dexterity to perform the required level of precision.

Second, there is a perception that robotics systems are difficult to learn to use, particularly among bomb squad veterans who will require a baseline comfort level before embracing robotics and understanding its benefits. 

Third, adoption of robotics has been slowed by the diversity of underlying platforms. Manufacturers of bomb squad equipment are subject to guidelines set by the National Bomb Squad Commanders Advisory Board (NBSCAB), and bomb squads themselves must examine on a regular basis what they have—and need—as it relates to NBSCAB guidelines. One area of increasing focus is to ensure that any technology or products adopted by bomb squads are ‘platform agnostic.’

This is critical because law enforcement agencies at every level face persistent budget challenges when it comes to staffing and resources for bomb disposal units. Moreover, bomb squads have committed significant funds and training to existing technology platforms—investments they are loath to write off when evaluating new, innovative technologies.

 

Advanced Robotics Now Meeting Needs

Today, the challenges to using robotics for the dismantling of IEDs, bombs, and hazardous materials are fading as vendors are bringing cost-feasible, high-performance, advanced robotics to market that deliver several key benefits to law enforcement agencies.

First, advanced robotics are easier to control. While the majority of ‘render safe procedures’ (RSP) used to neutralize explosive devices are carried out remotely using robotic technology, they are often outdated systems. Bomb and IED dismantling often involves a ‘best available’ manipulator not ideally suited to the dexterity needed to properly render a device inert—a process that is time-consuming and far from precise. Furthermore, these robotics units are typically wheeled or tracked vehicles with only one large arm that allows for some manipulation but fails to provide operators the fine manipulation required for sensitive operations.

Advanced robotics have moved beyond rudimentary manipulation and now provide users with unprecedented remote, fine dexterous manipulation through the application of stereoscopic video and intuitive user input devices (UIDs). Combining these technologies with other advancements offers unprecedented manipulation capability for grasping, sampling, cutting, grinding and remote electrical measurement (oscilloscope).

Second, advanced robotics have enhanced vision. In addition to limited dexterity, many robotics systems in use today deliver insufficient vision capabilities for operators, a ‘two-dimensional’ view that can make it difficult to account for the broader visual context when maneuvering. For example, an operator might roll the robot forward only to determine the grasper is 6 to 8 inches away from the object. 

Advanced robotics systems not only deliver fine manipulation control and dexterity through grippers, they are fully immersive with 3D cameras that provide images to operator control units for depth of field in scene. This allows the operator to more accurately perceive the full device in visual context and be incredibly precise. The robot unit becomes a natural extension of the user’s arm. When the operator reaches, the robot mimics that movement; rotate the wrist, and the robot will do the same.

Third, advanced robotics use very lightweight designs. Some robotics devices are now designed to fold themselves into a box shape that’s a mere 14 inches wide and 5 inches tall. The lightweight, compact design is increasingly critical given that law enforcement agencies require robotics that are suited for urban settings where a dangerous object may be located in an office, vehicle, or similarly tight location. The lightweight, modular design also allows users to customize the system to operational needs through fine motor control in a compact frame.

Fourth, advanced robotics are adaptable to future innovation. As critical as advanced robotics are becoming to bomb disposal units, vendors are adapting capabilities to meet emerging threats. At SRI, development efforts around Taurus®, our telemanipulation tool for neutralizing sophisticated IED threats, recognize that bomb squads seek robots able to remotely performing delicate manipulation tasks far beyond capabilities of current ground robotics.  

An example of emerging innovation is robotics capabilities for soft packet inspection (i.e., the need for a robot to unzip a bag to either clear it or determine it is dangerous). The Boston Marathon bombing is an example of a ‘soft device,’ and a case when law enforcement spent considerable time robotically inspecting numerous soft devices in the area. Today’s robotics units can reduce the time it takes to inspect one of these bags from hours to a matter of minutes—critical when time is of the essence.

Another emerging development is an enhanced ability to cut precisely into bags, letters, envelopes and similar packages to better address hazardous materials threats. When there is a risk of exposing citizens to hazardous materials, law enforcement cannot detonate suspicious packages in a way that could spread a chemical or radiological threat.

Another promising technology for advanced robotics is the advent of virtual and augmented reality to further improve the visual aspect of bomb and IED disposal. The ability to pair virtual reality with real-world perception and high-fidelity sensors could be a game changer in how robotic operators perceive their environment. Advances in robotics are opening up many opportunities for law enforcement organizations seeking to ensure the safety of both bomb squads and the public. 

 

Mark Baybutt is a senior research engineer and project leader at SRI International.


Published in Tactical Response, Aug 2016

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