'Robot Army' in Afghanistan Surges Past 2,000 Units
There are now more than 2,000 ground robots operating in Afghanistan, and troops are demanding more.
Marine Corps Lt. Col. Dave Thompson, project manager for the joint project office for robotics systems, said there has been an insatiable demand for this technology. Robots for the most part have been used to detect improvised explosive devices, but their missions are growing, Thompson said Feb. 1 at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International program review, in Washington, D.C.
“Robots are not just for explosive ordnance disposal teams anymore,” he said.
Ground forces are finding new applications for small robots that can be carried by dismounted troops. “They are using them in ways we never expected,” he said. One-third of the approximately 1,400 robots sent to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010 did not go to EOD teams, he said. Troops use the cameras for reconnaissance and surveillance. Military police are also finding utility for the robots, he added.
Many of the tactics being employed are classified. One popular application has been for entry control points, said Thompson. The robots are being sent out in front of checkpoints where they can look underneath or inside vehicles for bombs before the cars or trucks get too close, he said.
There are five primary robots being employed: a 35-pound mini-EOD robot that can be carried in a backpack; medium-sized Talon and Packbots that weigh about 65 pounds; a 120-pound Talon that is popular with EOD units because of its strong arm and manipulator; and a vehicle-sized M160, which can remotely clear minefields.
The M160 comes equipped with a roller in front of the vehicle that has flails and hammers. They churn the soil eight inches deep to destroy or intentionally detonate mines. Some of the minefields in Afghanistan are leftover from the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, he said. These robots are designed to absorb multiple explosions as they clear the field. Despite the beating they take, they have a 90 percent reliability rate, he said.
This robot, too, is being used for missions outside of its original intent. Thompson showed one video of an M160 being sent out in front of a convoy. An operator in a Husky mine-protected vehicle driving through the narrow street of an Afghan village guided the robot about 30 yards in front of the lead vehicle. The video showed a powerful roadside bomb destroying the M160. That would have otherwise been the Husky and its occupants. Thompson said he doesn’t mind having to repair extensively damaged robots such as the M160. “Every robot returned to us with battle damage is a life saved,” he said.