The Army has ordered 330 small robots to help soldiers search for
hidden explosives along Iraq’s roads.
are simple contraptions: remote-controlled toy cars outfitted with
a pan/tilt camera that can look down and over objects up to three
Troops in Iraq have been testing 30 of these so-called Marcbots—or
multifunction advanced remote-controlled robots. Their sole mission
is to drive down range and scan boxes, bags and guardrails. From
a safe standoff range, soldiers can see whether these objects are
camouflaged bombs, explained Lt. Col. Lee D. Gazzano, commander
of the Army’s “Rapid Equipping Force” team based
The REF was created to help expedite the deployment of technologies
to the battlefield.
The early version of the Marcbot was prone to breakdowns and its
range wasn’t long enough. The REF funded improvements to the
system and recently ordered 330 robots from Exponent Inc.
The price for a full system is $8,000, which is less than one-tenth
the cost of a other military robots currently used in IED sweeps,
said Ken Zemach, an engineer at Exponent who spent five months in
Iraq as an REF contractor.
“The design itself was driven from our scientists and the
soldiers who are living and working in Iraq, not by some R&D
lab in the United States,” said Zemach. “It also was
built with a clear understanding of military logistics and support,
and thus runs directly from rechargeable military batteries.”
Technologically, it’s not a breakthrough, he noted. “It’s
as off-the-shelf as we could get.”
While spending time with U.S. soldiers in Iraq, Zemach was taken
aback by the dangerous work these troops were doing. “Soldiers
who have to clear the roads for the convoys get out of their vehicles
and walk the roadsides, kicking boxes.”
Under Army policy, when soldiers see a suspicious object, they
must call for an explosive-ordnance disposal unit. “The problem
is that there is a box every 100 yards” and not nearly enough
EOD units to answer every call.
The use of robots in the search for hidden bombs in Iraq is just
one piece of an expanding campaign to mitigate insurgents’
devastating attacks that have resulted in hundreds of U.S. deaths
and thousands of injuries during the past two years.
“We’ve seen a migration starting last summer to more
complex ambushes,” said Army Brig Gen. Joseph L. Votel, director
of a special Pentagon agency in charge of developing technologies
to defeat improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
Insurgents camouflage IEDs in places like road signs, he said.
“It’s a cat-and-mouse game with us.
“More aggressive use of vehicle IEDs is the emerging technique,”
Votel said. In recent months U.S. vehicles have been targeted with
“explosively formed penetrators” that not even armored
trucks can protect against. Shaped charges were first developed
after World War I to penetrate tanks and other armored equipment.
They are used in the oil and gas industry to open up the rock around
Armoring vehicles so far appears to be the only way to stem the
casualties, although officials concede that no amount of armor will
“It’s probably not possible to have enough armor to
protect everybody with 100 percent surety,” said Lt. Gen.
Claude V. Christianson, Army deputy chief of staff for logistics.
Armor developers, nonetheless, are striving for improvements. “The
enemy tries to counter everything we do,” said Col. John Rooney,
chief of staff of the Army Test Developmental Command, at Aberdeen
Proving Ground, Md.
Engineers at Aberdeen have tested 350 armor technologies from at
least 65 vendors during the past two years, Rooney said in an interview.
“Many of the 350 solutions have not performed very well,”
he said. “Many companies are trying very hard to provide a
solution but they don’t particularly understand the problem.”
While some armor kits protect from IED blasts, they don’t
shield from shrapnel and fragments, which cause most of the injuries
and casualties. “That’s clearly something we need solutions
for,” Rooney said.
In general, said Rooney, softer steel is more effective against
fragments, but harder steel may better protect from shaped charges.
Metal armor generally is the most effective against IEDs, although
ceramic armor has shown promise. An explosion often causes the ceramic
to crack, he said. “It’ll stop the first few fragments
but when it busts up, the follow on fragments will penetrate. Metals
don’t break up like that.”
To be effective, ceramic plates need special backing material that
absorbs the energy of a projective and catches the fragments of
both the projectile and the ceramic as it splinters, explained Tim
Swinger, vice president of military programs at Honeywell. The company
makes the protective fiber known as Spectra Shield, which is used
in body armor vests.
He acknowledged that, in the vehicle armor market, the composite
systems have to overcome a resistance in the Army to adopt these
new technologies, which are perceived as too expensive.
“Throughout the history of Spectra Shield, it’s always
been an uphill battle of performance versus price,” he said.
At Aberdeen, a truck door made of composite armor recently was
tested by detonating a Russian 152 mm artillery round place 4 meters
away. The door survived, although three pieces of steel penetrated
the door’s outer panel, said Marc King, vice president of
Ceradyne Inc., a supplier of composite armor. Like others in the
industry, King said he often gets frustrated by what he described
as bias in the Army toward steel armor.
The downside of steel armor is the weight it saddles on a truck.
Ceramic armor generally cuts the weight in half, and eventually
will be able to compete with steel solutions, said Maj. Gen. Brian
I. Geehan, chief of Army transportation. He said ceramic armor will
be ready for military use in about two to three years.
Geehan, who heads the Army Transportation School, said the IED
attacks have led to substantial changes in the training offered
for truck drivers and convoy crews.
“We looked at our basic program of instruction and completely
renovated it,” he said in an interview. “Every driver
will go through convoy live fire in basic training. … Every
lieutenant goes through extensive live-fire convoy and weapons training.
They learn to shoot different weapons.”