Radio Shack v2.0: Bombots, Start Your Engines!
Past DID articles covering the future of ground robots on the battlefield and the MTRS TALON/Packbot surveillance and explosives disposal robots both noted a role for smaller examples, from Dragon Runner “Throwbots” to Exponent’s field-iterated MARCBot. Some US troops were even taking initiative and using remote-control toys as part of their patrols.
Now Innovative Response Technologies Inc. in Fairmont, WV has received a $10 million firm-fixed-price contract for 309 explosive ordnance disposal “BOMBOT” vehicles for IED mine neutralization. The BOMBOT has been described by its proponents as a “high-tech toy truck with a camera and a dump bed.” How does that help soldiers neutralize IED mines, and how did an Air Force Research Laboratory project end up being procured by the USA’s Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA)?
Larger, more robust, and more sophisticated UGV systems in the $100,000 – $150,000 range are usually transported on a Humvee jeep or by trailer, and sometimes draw considerable attention when deployed. In contrast, the BomBot was designed to be a carryable (15 pound/ 7 kg), low-cost, low-profile robot with a smaller logistical burden.
The BomBot is a modified 4×4 remote controlled truck that has been equipped with a simple pan and tilt camera and a charge dispenser. BomBots can reach speeds of 30-35 miles per hour, but in order to give them the required precision control without sacrificing fast reaction speed, a specially designed control unit from Nomadio Inc. allows the operator to choose a low, medium or high ‘speed limit’. Nomadio also has experience developing redundant, high security, short range digital radio systems, and their gear adds secure frequency hopping command and control, and the ability to relay information back from the robot’s sensing devices.
The resulting remote-control vehicle costs $5,000-$7,000, and is designed to carry up to 5 pounds of explosives to a suspect land mine. Standard modus operandi is for the BomBot to drive up, drop off the charge, then move out of range for the detonation.
In at least one case, however, the BomBot did its job without ever leaving the vehicle. National Defense reports that:
“It one case, a shaped charged shot from an IED struck a BomBot stowed in the back of a humvee. The deadly projectile deflected off the protective case, sending it harmlessly away from an EOD technician sitting next to it.
The BomBot was declared a total loss, but another life was saved.”
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) originally developed the BomBot to safely and inexpensively detonate IED mines in war zones. Its Materials and Manufacturing Directorate rapidly prototyped, developed, and delivered the original BomBot in just 90 days. The robots have since been used during a variety of mission profiles in Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq, after being delivered to support requests from Air Combat Command (ACC), the Marines, and Central Air Forces (CENTAF).
Based on feedback from explosive ordnance disposal personnel who received prototype BomBots, the engineers made adjustments to the radio’s capabilities, to stick control, and to the camera mount, and helped with the development of an operating manual for the technology. The entire program was then transitioned to Navy EOD Technology Division personnel at Indian Head Naval Ordnance Station, MD.
Creating a prototype, however, isn’t the same thing as having a product full ready for manufacture. Enter the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation (see web site), which seeks projects in which area small businesses can partner. The Foundation’s R&D Group, with partners Azimuth Inc., Aker Kvaerner, and the Robert C. Byrd Institute [DID note: sitting Sen. Robert Byrd, D-WV, is infamous for pork-barrel projects all over the state that bear his name], prepared the prototype for manufacture. Azimuth came up with a pan and tilt camera mechanism and an enhanced user interface, and RCBI helped identify and test manufacturing techniques.
The foundation set up a for-profit subsidiary called Innovative Response Technologies Inc. to manage the collaboration. IRT will employ four people for contract management, quality assurance and customer interface. The manufacture and assembly, which could be up to 2,800 pieces the first year [DID: actual figures slightly less], will be outsourced to Aker Kvaerner and Azimuth.
Contracts & Events
March 2007: Obviously, some contracts aren’t announced; DefemseLINK has a $5 million limit, and it would be easy to order 100 Bombots without hitting that figure. A National Defense Magazine article says “The 15-pound BomBot recently reached the “program of record status.” More than 2,300 have been fielded so far.”
Dec 20/05: Innovative Response Technologies Inc. in Fairmont, WV received a $10 million firm-fixed-price contract for 309 explosive ordnance disposal “BOMBOT” vehicles for IED mine neutralization. Work will be performed in Fairmont, WV and is expected to be complete by December 2006. The contract was not competitively procured by the Naval Sea Systems Command, Indian Head Division at Indian Head, MD (N00174-06-C-0018).
Additional Readings & Sources
- AFRL – Materials and Manufacturing Directorate Delivers Compact, Low-Cost Robot For Remote Improvised Explosive Device Neutralization
- National Defense Magazine (March 2007) – Navy Begins Work on Next-Generation Bomb Disposal Robot. Current plans call for development of a family of robots to begin in 2008, with fielding in 2012-2013. The Bombot would be one of the robots replaced.
- The West Virginia State Journal (Dec 15/05) – Small Tech Companies Collaborate on Defense Projects
- US Naval Institute, Seapower Magazine (October 2005) – “Remote Control”
- DID (Oct 14/05) – Seapower Interviews US Navy’s Littoral and Mine Warfare PEO
- DID (Sept 26/05) – MTRS to the Rescue! RadioShack Replaced? (updated). Covers the larger TALON and iRobot MTRS systems, as well as the comparably-sized MARCBot.
- DID (June 20/05) – Battlefield Robots: To Iraq, and Beyond
- DID (May 18/05) – Remote Control Toys Used By Iraq Patrols