Boston Attack Highlights Bomb Squad Shortfalls

By Stew Magnuson
The nation’s 466 bomb squads have urgent needs for robots that can help them do their jobs, said a leading expert in counter-improvised explosive device technologies. The problem is that they don’t have much money to upgrade their systems.

The Boston Marathon attack, which employed two explosive-laden backpacks, brought into sharp focus some of the shortcomings of the nation’s bomb squads, particularly when it comes to robots, said Edwin Bundy, program manager of the improvised device defeat subgroup of the technical support working group at the combating terrorism technical support office.

A survey of the National Bomb Squad Commanders Advisory Board showed a need for light, backpackable robots that can be used in emergency situations such as the one in Boston, he said at the National Defense Industrial Association Ground Robotics Symposium in Springfield, Va.

“It was really an eye opener to them because of the operations that were occurring,” he said. The bomb technicians were on the move as events unfolded and couldn’t bring with them the larger robots that are normally transported in a vehicle.

“They had to be running and gunning, if you will, with the SWAT teams,” Bundy said.

“They needed something light, something that could deploy very, very rapidly that had manipulation and disruption capability,” he added.

Improvised explosive devices remain the terrorists’ number one weapon of choice globally and domestically.

A survey Bundy revealed at a trade show earlier this year showed that U.S. bomb-related incidents are underreported. Official federal statistics show that there are about 3,400 incidents every year nationwide. The findings said that number was 10-times larger, ranging from 31,000 to 34,000 every year. Some of these are hoaxes or suspicious packages that don’t turn out to be bombs. But each incident requires a bomb squad to respond.

Many of these bombs are real, though, but they don’t always grab the headlines. Bundy asked the audience of 120 if they had heard of the car bomb in Pennsylvania earlier in 2013 that leveled three homes. Only one person raised her hand. A man seeking revenge after a drug deal had gone wrong packed a car with 1,200 pounds of ammonium nitrate.

That incident pointed to the bomb squad commander’s number one need: better robots to counter vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.

“We still at this point in time do not have what the public safety bomb squad community feels is a totally VBIED capable platform,” he said.

There needs to be better manipulators to open vehicle doors and trunks and to keep them open.

The failed Times Square bomb plot in 2010 had explosives hidden in a van. A piece of cardboard that was laid over the top of the device confounded the bomb squad. Its robot’s manipulator kept tearing at it, but it wouldn’t budge. Consequently, technicians had to suit up and remove it manually.

Most robots are height challenged when it comes to looking into cars and trucks. Stand-up masts would help, Bundy said. The primary way technicians look at suspected car bombs now is by putting on protective suits and walking down range, which is something they do not want to do.

Seeing into windows with glare and tinting are also becoming problems. And the ability to break windows is becoming more difficult because the quality of windshields and glass is becoming better.

“As vehicles become safer and safer, they are harder to get into and work on for the bomb technician,” he said.

“There is a lot of advanced development that has been going on in the robotic arena. We need to take that and we need to apply it to VBIED platforms. The public safety community is screaming for it,” he added.

The main problem is funding.

One bomb squad he recently visited in San Jose, Calif., the 10th largest city in America, had only $3,800 to spend on new equipment per year.

“Unless they were getting it from a [Department of Homeland Security] grant, which is how most people do it, or somebody gave it to them, they weren’t getting it,” Bundy said of new robotic technologies to counter IEDs.

Bomb squads are telling him that they don’t need robotic platforms. They need ways to make the existing platforms better, and give them more capabilities.

“That is what our organization is really beginning to focus on,” he said.

Topics: Bomb and Warhead, Improvised Explosive Devices, Homeland Security, DHS Budget, Disaster Response, Science and Technology, Science and Engineering Technology, Homeland Security

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