BEL AIR, Md. — Explosive ordnance disposal robots have proven their worth in Iraq and Afghanistan by reducing their operators’ exposure to improvised bombs. An Army program hopes to do the same for specialists who must enter buildings and caves to root out chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials.
The CBRN unmanned ground reconnaissance (CUGR) demonstration program seeks to reduce the risk for members of chem-bio units who must often walk into the unknown, said Shawn Funk, a deputy technical manager at the Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.
Specialists currently must don protective gear and enter confined spaces with handheld detectors. They have even resorted to placing litmus paper on the end of sticks and shoving them under doors to determine if they should enter a room, Funk noted.
“We’re giving war fighters a new tool to conduct chemical and radiological recon without actually have to go in and do it themselves,” Funk said on the sidelines of a Maryland Technology Development Corp. event.
The CUGR is a marriage of proven chemical-radiological sensors onto a PackBot system produced by iRobot Corp. of Burlington, Mass.
Edgewood chose the PackBot because it has been proven in the field in the ordnance disposal community, and for its retractable arm, which can support a camera , he said. When entering a suspected chem-bio lab, specialists may want to inspect bottle labels or papers sitting on tables. Cameras mounted at floor level would not allow them to do that, he said.
The robot employs three main sensors. A MultiRAE sensor manufactured by RAE Systems of San Jose, Calif., detects explosives, volatile organic compounds, toxic industrial chemicals and oxygen levels.
The first sensor a team will want to employ is the oxygen meter, Funk said. Knowing how much oxygen is in a confined space is “not a trivial matter.” If the oxygen levels are low, then specialists will not be able to use masks that filter air. The sensor should inform them if they need to switch to a more cumbersome suit with a self-contained breathing apparatus.
Tradeways Ltd. of Annapolis, Md., provides a gamma radiation detector, the UDR 14. An LCD 3.2e, manufactured by Smiths Detection of Alcoa, Tenn., sniffs the air for chemical warfare agents such as blister agents or nerve gases. The robot can also gather air samples in tubes that can be taken to a lab and analyzed for biological agents.
Toxic industrial chemicals are a growing concern in Iraq. Unlike traditional chemical weapons such as mustard gas or sarin, which are difficult to obtain or manufacture, insurgents have used common industrial chemicals in improvised explosives. There were at least three vehicle-borne improvised bombs using chlorine gas earlier this year.
The robot is part of a package intended to upgrade CBRN units’ ability to gather data quicker.
During the initial invasion of Iraq, when it was still widely believed that the Saddam Hussein regime had weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. military raced out ahead of the nuclear, biological and chemical reconnaissance vehicles, which use a double-wheel sampling system to detect contamination on the surface and must drive at painfully slow speeds of about 2 miles per hour. Combatant commanders were forced to accept the risk of pushing ahead of the NBC vehicles, which were employing 12-year-old detection technology at the time, according to a 2005 proposal for the CUGR program.
In areas inaccessible to the vehicles, specialists had to leave their protected cab and use a hand-held chemical-biological mass-spectrometer.
When safely settled in a NBC protected cab, specialists “don’t want to open the doors and get out,” Funk said.
The Joint Requirements Office for CBRN Defense identified the need for a speedier vehicle and the robot. The original intention was to allow the robots to independently deploy off the back of the new vehicle without the specialist leaving the cab. That problem has not been worked out yet, Funk said.
However, Edgewood has delivered the robot one year ahead of schedule, he noted.
The 95th Chemical Company based at Ft. Richardson, Alaska, conducted tests on the robot and wrote a positive assessment, Funk said. They are currently performing long-term tests. The robot is a candidate for a formal acquisition program, and it will be up to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to take the next step.
“We have proven that something like this has a utility, now it’s their job to fine tune the requirements and configuration and really match it up to a need,” Funk said.
The robot won’t entirely eliminate the need for soldiers to enter buildings or caves. The robot can’t traverse large piles of rubble, it can’t climb ladders, go through portholes or move as quickly. One of the two cameras has a zoom lens, but human eyes are still superior, he said.
“But on the flip side, this isn’t going to die,” Funk said. “If you don’t know exactly what you’re going to encounter, I would rather send this into an unknown environment than a soldier.”
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