Navy Presses On With Long-Delayed Bomb Disposal Robot Program

By Stew Magnuson
Roboteam's micro tactical ground robot used by the U.S. Air Force for explosive ordnance disposal missions.

The Navy expects to field the first of three planned explosive ordnance disposal robots in 2017, almost 10 years after the program was announced, service officials said in a recent interview.

The Navy is the executive agent for explosive ordnance disposal technologies and as such is responsible across the four services for developing the next-generation of robots that EOD teams use to help them dismantle unexploded ordnance, roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices.

Its advanced explosive ordnance disposal robotic system (AEODRS) program is developing a family of three robots: increment 1, a small backpackable reconnaissance system weighing less than 35 pounds; increment 2, a two-man-portable robot weighing about 165 pounds with an arm, or arms that can help dismantle bombs; and increment 3, a robust 750-pound robot that can pick up heavy unexploded ordnance.

The largest potential customer for the program, the Army — at risk of losing its obligated funding if it didn’t commit to procuring a product — has abandoned the program. It announced in December upcoming programs of record to acquire systems similar to the Navy’s increments 1 and 2 robots and has no requirement for increment 3.

An Army Tank Automotive Research Development Engineering Center spokesman in a statement said it was proceeding with its own program for the time being. “While we would defer any specific questions about AEODRS to the Navy, we remain open to potential system collaboration based on mission requirements,” he said.

The Air Force pulled out of the increment 1 program in 2014. It recently completed development of a similar-sized reconnaissance robot in less than one year. Meanwhile, the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Indian Head EOD technology division — the Navy customer for the AEODRS program — continues to buy off-the-shelf robots. It signed three indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts with iRobot from August to October last year for small recon robots for the Navy and Marine Corps, spare parts for its legacy Mark 1 robots, and new-build MK1s, of which the increment 2 robot is intended to replace.

Michael J. Alperi, deputy program manager of SEA-06 expeditionary missions at Naval Sea Systems Command, said progress toward completing development work on the increment 1 robot is being made after the Navy awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman last year.

The new robot will have its critical design review in the coming months. The Navy will take delivery of the systems in the fourth quarter of this year after the company completes validation testing in the third quarter, he said. The Navy will verify the performance of the system prior to making a production decision.

“There is a lot of positive movement since we have made the award. There have been no major technical issues, so we are really pleased with our progress,” Alperi said in an interview.
Production and development of increment 1 is expected in the second quarter of fiscal year 2017, according to a Navy PowerPoint presentation released in December. Marine Corps and Navy EOD teams are the only remaining customers for this robot.

Increment 2, which has been described as the workhorse of the EOD robots, is not scheduled to go into production until the third quarter of 2019.

Alperi said, “The contract is set up where we have the ability if they [the Air Force and Army] come back in and see that the program is successful, or find money, we could buy for them.”

While the Army would not provide officials for comment, an Air Force EOD officer who has attended Army briefings on its plans said the service will refurbish and repurpose the chassis of the off-the-shelf robots it acquired in the thousands during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Some of these would be the same weight class of the increment 2 robot.

“The chassis are valuable,” Maj. Shane C.R. Frith, commander of the Air Force EOD division, said in an interview. The Army will strip down the Talon robots, originally manufactured by QinetiQ North America, and rebuild them with modules for a variety of missions including chemical-biological detection, reconnaissance and EOD.

“It’s going to be completely modular and tailorable to the mission set. It’s cheaper and much more feasible for them to gut what they have rather than just scrapping them and waiting for something that may or may not come out,” Frith said.

Frith, a vocal critic of the Navy AEODRS program, said the Air Force fielded its own increment 1 alternative robot within one year. “The guys down at the Air Force civil engineering center did a fantastic job with the acquisition process to make that happen. They did that very rapidly.” The Air Force chose a modified off-the-shelf robot manufactured by the U.S. subsidiary of an Israeli company, Roboteam.

“That particular system won out across all of the averages of course — from cost to sustainability packages to user preferences. Obviously, it didn’t win across the board in every area, but when you consider all of the weightings … that was the one that won out,” he said.

The company had previously sold versions of its 20-pound Micro Tactical Ground Robot to U.S. Special Operations Command and the Department of Homeland Security. The contract is for up to 250 units.

Frith said the robots are adaptable. “If we want the newest, latest and greatest [technology], it’s not a laborious process. They tell us what’s available, we tell them what we want. … They fix the fabrication line and they field it, and there we go.”

The Air Force was forced to go its own way on the program or risk losing its funding, he said. “We put the funding that we did have to good use and now we have a full fleet,” he said.

As for the Air Force’s future intentions, Frith made it clear that he did not speak for the service. Nevertheless, he predicted that it may run into the same budgeting problem and be forced to develop its own increments 2 and 3 style robots. In addition, the service was happy with the speed and results of the off-the-shelf backpackable robot acquisition.

“I think we will go down the same path. We have had success with this first robot so chances are good that technology from industry will far surpass what the government is developing as a program of record, and that will force us into the same position,” he said.

The Air Force is currently the only service with a requirement for the large, increment 3 robot, which is mostly intended for cleaning up unexploded ordnance on runways. Production isn’t expected on increment 3 until the first quarter of 2022, the Navy PowerPoint indicated. The Air Force abandoning the 750-pound class robot would leave it without an end-user.

Frith, along with an Army EOD officer in National Defense Magazine last year, harshly criticized the job the Navy has done on the program. They accused the service of being autocratic and wondered why it was the executive agent for EOD technology.

In a recent interview, Tom Dee, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for expeditionary programs and logistics management, pushed back at the criticism and said the Navy is the best service to develop this technology because it has the widest counter-bomb mission set, which includes everything from dismantling roadside bombs to destroying undersea mines.

“All of the services have had a voice in the AEODRS program,” he added. There is a Joint Service EOD Program Board, organized consistent with the guidelines of a Defense Department directive. Each service is responsible for appointing a flag or general officer to ensure that their equities are met. The board operates on a consensus basis and those officers are responsible for ensuring that the program is adequately addressing their requirements for technology development, Dee said. 

“In the event the military services are unable to reach consensus on technology development issues, the issue would be elevated to our [office of the secretary of defense] proponent for resolution. To my knowledge, that has never happened.” 

Further, “frustration with the pace of the defense acquisition system is not unique to the AEODRS program,” he said.

The reasons for the delays are twofold, he said at an industry conference last year. Developing the open architecture system proved to be difficult. The initial contracting vehicle also caused a delay.

Alperi said the Navy originally wanted a fixed-price contract, but after negative feedback from contractors it was forced to change its approach to a cost-plus incentive fee in order to build the first manufacturer’s models. That change delayed the program.

After performance verification of increment 1 later this year, there will be a “price redetermination” of the fixed-price contract, he said. This means once Northrop Grumman delivers, if it meets the requirements, the Navy can award the production piece of the contract to deliver the units to the services, he said. “Given that they have learned what they learned, the contracting officer asks the manufacturer what the final and best cost would be. You can never raise the price of what they proposed, only lower [it], so it is advantageous to the government,” Alperi said.

Byron Brezina, a former leader of the program at Naval Sea Systems Command’s EOD technology division, at an industry conference in February 2010 said the Navy would go without prime contractors for the AEODRS program and the technology division would be its own lead system integrator through the development process. He predicted full-scale production of increment 1 by 2014.

Alperi said the in-house approach has been changed in favor of a more traditional lead system integrator. “They [Northrop Grumman] are the prime system integrator. They put their best value proposition before us and had their own consortium.”

Makers of the subcomponents don’t give up any of their intellectual property during the process, he added.

Dee said: “Everyone involved with the acquisition system is striving to make it more agile and to better promote innovation.” The program board “is continually striving to improve its processes in order to be more responsive to quickly evolving user needs while appropriately balancing risk.”  

It is the program’s intention to field robots that are better than any off-the-shelf solutions, he noted.

“Within the AEODRS program, our joint service requirement was not to simply buy a new robot. It was to push industry to develop a truly modular robot with an open systems architecture that would allow … users to more quickly incorporate new technologies and new capabilities,” he said.

“We admittedly, but quite consciously, traded near-term speed of acquisition for longer term agility and performance,” Dee added. 

Alperi added: “We have learned a lot from that first increment that we will apply to increment 2 and 3, so we think that the rough spots and the lessons learned from that will make it much easier to go through the process of increment 2.”

Topics: Bomb and Warhead, Improvised Explosive Devices, Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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