Explosive Ordnance Disposal Robot Program at Risk of Collapse

By Stew Magnuson
After eight years of development, the Navy has failed to field a next generation of inter-service bomb disposal robots, and Army and Air Force officers are calling the future of the program into question.

“I don’t really see a lot of hope for this AEODRS thing working the way it was intended to work,” Maj. Shane C.R. Frith, commander of the Air Force explosive ordnance disposal division, told National Defense.

AEODRS is the advanced EOD robotic system. The Navy, the executive agent for the program, set out in 2007 to replace the commercial-off-the-shelf bomb disposal robots that were rushed into the field at the outset of the Iraq War. All four services have EOD teams and together wrote the requirements for a new family of robots based on size: a small backpackable system at about 35 pounds; a medium sized robot to be transported in tactical trucks at 130 pounds; and a large, vehicle-sized robot that could be towed by a trailer to take care of large ordnance.

Called increments one, two and three respectively, they would be developed in house without a prime contractor. Navy officials said the machines’ components would plug and play and work interoperably with a standard interface. The service would award contracts for subcomponents such as the chassis, robotic arm, camera and powerpack separately. A manufacturer would be chosen as an integrator to put all the subcomponents together. If a better technology came along, it could easily be replaced.

In year seven of development, without any success in fielding a robot, the Air Force pulled out of increment one. Now a year later, Frith said the service has managed to find an off-the-shelf solution that fits its requirements and has passed all the necessary tests. It expects to announce an award in late summer. The service has not made an announcement on pulling out of increments two and three yet.

Meanwhile, the Army — also running out of patience — is threatening to pull out of increment two, said Lt. Col. Percy “Wes” Rhone, deputy chief of the EOD directorate at the Army ordnance center and school.

The Army, which has the most EOD personnel of the four services, is the largest customer for the program, he said in an interview. Yet it has little say in what is going on at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Indian Head, Maryland, where the program resides. Why the Navy is the executive agent for the program is a mystery to him.

“You take the Army out of it, everybody wants to cry. Like we’re not playing fair. We are playing fair. [Their] system doesn’t work for me. The technology doesn’t work for me,” he said.

“We are trying to find a better solution for increment two,” he acknowledged. “The Navy is in charge of training and technology. How? I don’t know. But they are,” he said.

The proposed system would come with high maintenance costs and the Army would be left footing the bill, he added.

“At the end of the day, we get the short end of the stick. We have the biggest bill and we get the short end of the stick. But we’re the biggest customer,” Rhone said.

Frith and Rhone both decried the fact that the requirements for the family of robots were written eight years ago and haven’t changed.

Frith said: “The ideas may have been futuristic in 2007 for some of the things, but as time has progressed and companies have heard what we wanted, they go out and make these things.”

All four services had to agree to the requirements, he noted.

“We can’t now go back and insert those requirements that we now have back into that old document because it was agreed upon back in 2007,” Frith said.

For example, the requirement on the books is for a single-arm manipulator in increments two and three, Frith said. But the world has moved on and dual arms, which are closer to the way humans actually operate, is the state of the art.

“Nobody in industry is using asymmetric arm set-ups. No one,” Frith said.

“They have the option of taking bids on symmetric solutions — and we hope that they do — but just the fact that they thought they could get there for the last several years when nobody in industry is doing that — to completely ignore what is out there — kind of boggles my mind,” he added.

Marine Corps Maj. Curtis Smith, EOD program action officer, said in an interview that his service is still “fully committed” to the AEODRS program. But he acknowledged in a speech at the National Defense Industrial Association Global EOD Symposium in Bethesda, Maryland, that Marines now want a 25-pound backpackable robotic system.  The service is trying to become lighter and return to its expeditionary roots.

AEODRS increment one weighs 35 pounds.

“What we prefer is 25 pounds. But we are dealing with the acquisition process. You ask for one thing, by the time you get it it’s going to be X. Is that requirement going to change? Of course it’s going to change a little bit. That’s just the way it is,” Smith said.

Whether industry could deliver a lighter robot is unknown, so the Marine Corps will stick with the AEODRS increment one and see how that works.

“We understand that a 100 percent solution is going to take 100 percent of the time. We can’t do that. So we need something that we can accept the risk with an 80 percent solution,” he said. The service will look in the out years to see how the 35-pound version worked out.

Tom Dee, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for expeditionary programs and logistics management, said technical issues and problems writing contracts for the open architecture system has slowed the program down. The Navy will issue the first contracts by the end of the fiscal year, he said at the conference.

“What we were doing differently with AEODRS was really working — no kidding — on an open architecture capabilities. How do you take these different modules to allow industry to compete for these different modules?”

If industry comes forth with a new manipulator, for example, the Navy wants to swap it in. But this new way of acquiring a platform is “what became the source of the delays in the AEODRS program,” he said. Crafting the request for proposals was particularly difficult, he said.

“People talk about common standards, open architecture. We’ve been reading about that for decades. It’s actually hard to lay out what your intellectual property strategy is going to be. How are you going to allow people to compete for this thing and get the outcome that you wanted? And we struggled a little bit in doing that and that’s honestly why it took so long,” Dee said.

“It was honestly new. We’ve learned the lessons from that on how we do open architecture systems. And we hope to apply those lesson to future robotic systems both on the land, underwater vehicles and a whole range of things,” he said.

Frith countered: “I’ve asked for proven success records to where open architecture has been successful in the government and I’ve yet to find one.”

Robot developers don’t want to take years of research-and-development investments and just hand their intellectual property over to the government and then have it turn around the next year and say, “I’m sorry we’re not going to use you again and we’re going to go with this company over here because they took this open architecture and they made the same arm cheaper.”

The Navy also made a mistake when it declared that the prime system integrator, the company responsible for actually assembling the robots from all the myriad parts, couldn’t compete for subcomponent contracts, Frith said.

“Who would be interested in doing that when you’re not going to make any real money?” he asked. The bigger manufacturers saw all the profits coming from providing subcomponents. And there were questions as to whether small engineering firms had the ability to do the work, he added.

“There was a no-win situation there,” Frith said.

The “single manager,” or executive agent nature of the program, simply isn’t working, both Frith and Rhone said.

“If it were a true joint service program, we would be offered more of the benefits of a joint program,” Frith said.

“Everything is done in a bubble,” Rhone said. “It never leaves Indian Head — from baby to high school is at Indian Head,” added Rhone. The Army says, “Let’s come up with a joint payload for EOD.” But the Navy doesn’t want to do that, he added.

The Navy is saying, “This is how it’s going to be,” Rhone said.

In addition to the Air Force already backing out of increment one, and the Army threatening to leave increment two, the Navy was never committed to increment three for its EOD forces. It never had a requirement on the books, Frith said.

“If those are pulled away, what happens to the program? All of a sudden the structure begins to fall apart,” Frith said.

Rhone added: “For the Army to back out of the system will pretty much bankrupt somebody because we are the biggest customer.”

It’s almost a “too big to fail” scenario, Frith said, with so much money sunk into the program that the Navy won’t start again.

“We’re really not too big to fail. We’re really a small program, … a small piece of the government. So why aren’t we more flexible and adaptable and able to insert those requirements more quickly?” Frith asked.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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