Navy Poised to Start Building Next-Generation Bomb Disposal Robots

By Stew Magnuson

After six years of development, the Navy will issue a key contract — possibly within the next 30 days — to begin building its next-generation bomb disposal robot.

The issuance of a request for proposals to find a contractor for the final integration and production of the first of three planned models of the Advanced Explosive Ordnance Disposal Robotic System is "imminent," said Byron Brezina, the system's program manager.

"I have used that word before and gotten in trouble," he said Aug. 13 at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Washington, D.C.

Work began in 2006 on fielding a fourth-generation bomb disposal robot when the Navy began studying what it needed for a new system. Prior to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the Navy had a program of record for a large robot that had to be transported by truck. The roadside bomb scourge prompted the service to rapidly acquire two smaller robots "off the shelf" from manufacturers iRobot and Foster-Miller, which was eventually acquired by QinetiQ North America.

These two models have performed admirably, Brezina said. More than 300 of them have been destroyed in combat, each one representing a life saved, he said. However, the two robots came with no common parts. Each had its own expensive logistics tail. Integrating new features or tools into their operating systems is costly and time consuming, he added.

The Navy decided to take a different approach to acquiring the next generation of robots. Instead of choosing a winner-take-all vendor, it would take components from a variety of suppliers and integrate them into an open architecture, with a common operating system. A contractor would be chosen to integrate the components and manufacture the robot.

The first robot will be a small backpackable system weighing about 35 pounds. A medium, heavier duty robot at about 164 pounds that will have to be transported by truck, and a 750-pound machine intended for base and infrastructure protection in fixed sites will soon follow, he said. The three systems will have a common architecture, parts and controllers.

"We are incorporating a common open system architecture to facilitate across the family  such things as being able to adapt quickly," he said. The improvised explosive device threat showed that it didn't take the enemy much effort to create new weapons, he added.

The small robot will have nine subcomponents to be integrated such as the chassis, manipulator arms, vision and autonomy software. The larger versions will have about 12 or 13 modules, he said.

There will be ongoing competitions to improve and add components as technology advances and threats change, he said. There will not be any sole source contractors, he  added.

"This is going to increase competition and innovation," he said.

The RFP for the prime integrator for the small robot will come within the next 30 days, although he said he didn't "want to make promises." John Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab is managing the medium and large robot programs, he said.

Those two robots are lagging behind the development of the smaller robot, which was planned, he said. They are undergoing a preliminary design review. The winner of that competition will integrate both those robots, he added. APL will begin to issue RFPs for the 12 or 13 modules when that review is completed, which may come as early as this fall, he added.

Brezina rejected criticism that the program has taken a long time. Unlike the current EOD robots that were rapidly fielded, this program went by the book as far as acquisition practices, he said. The time and money spent upfront to create the common architecture is going to save funding and time for the Navy in the future when new components are rapidly acquired and integrated, he said.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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