Chemical Detecting Robot Program Rolls Forward

Article excerpt

BEL AIR, Md. -- Explosive ordnance disposal robots have proven their worth in Iraq and Afghanistan by reducing their operators' exposure to improvised bombs. An Army program hopes to do the same for specialists who must enter buildings and caves to root out chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials.

The CBRN unmanned ground reconnaissance (CUGR) demonstration program seeks to reduce the risk for members of chem-bio units who must often walk into the unknown, said Shawn Funk, a deputy technical manager at the Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

Specialists currently must don protective gear and enter confined spaces with handheld detectors. They have even resorted to placing litmus paper on the end of sticks and shoving them under doors to determine if they should enter a room, Funk noted.

"We're giving war fighters a new tool to conduct chemical and radiological recon without actually have to go in and do it themselves," Funk said on the sidelines of a Maryland Technology Development Corp. event.

The CUGR is a marriage of proven chemical-radiological sensors onto a PackBot system produced by iRobot Corp. of Burlington, Mass.

Edgewood chose the PackBot because it has been proven in the field in the ordnance disposal community, and for its retractable arm, which can support a camera, he said. When entering a suspected chem-bio lab, specialists may want to inspect bottle labels or papers sitting on tables. Cameras mounted at floor level would not allow them to do that, he said.

The robot employs three main sensors. A MultiRAE sensor manufactured by RAE Systems of San Jose, Calif., detects explosives, volatile organic compounds, toxic industrial chemicals and oxygen levels.

The first sensor a team will want to employ is the oxygen meter, Funk said. Knowing how much oxygen is in a confined space is "not a trivial matter." If the oxygen levels are low, then specialists will not be able to use masks that filter air. The sensor should inform them if they need to switch to a more cumbersome suit with a self-contained breathing apparatus.

Tradeways Ltd. of Annapolis, Md., provides a gamma radiation detector, the UDR 14. An LCD 3.2e, manufactured by Smiths Detection of Alcoa, Tenn., sniffs the air for chemical warfare agents such as blister agents or nerve gases. The robot can also gather air samples in tubes that can be taken to a tab and analyzed for biological agents.

Toxic industrial chemicals are a growing concern in Iraq. Unlike traditional chemical weapons such as mustard gas or sarin, which are difficult to obtain or manufacture, insurgents have used common industrial chemicals in improvised explosives. …