The Army has ordered 330 small robots to help soldiers search for hidden explosives along Iraq's roads.
They are simple contraptions: remote-controlled toy cars outfitted with a pan/tilt camera that can look down and over objects up to three feet tall.
Troops in Iraq have been testing 30 of these so-called Marcbots--or multifunction advanced remote-controlled robots. Their sole mission is to drive down range and scan boxes, bags and guardrails. From a safe standoff range, soldiers can see whether these objects are camouflaged bombs, explained Lt. Col. Lee D. Gazzano, commander of the Army's "Rapid Equipping Force" team based in Iraq.
The REF was created to help expedite the deployment of technologies to the battlefield.
The early version of the Marcbot was prone to breakdowns and its range wasn't long enough. The REF funded improvements to the system and recently ordered 330 robots from Exponent Inc.
The price for a full system is $8,000, which is less than one-tenth the cost of a other military robots currently used in IED sweeps, said Ken Zemach, an engineer at Exponent who spent five months in Iraq as an REF contractor.
"The design itself was driven from our scientists and the soldiers who are living and working in Iraq, not by some R&D lab in the United States," said Zemach. "It also was built with a clear understanding of military logistics and support, and thus runs directly from rechargeable military batteries."
Technologically, it's not a breakthrough, he noted. "It's as off-the-shelf as we could get."
While spending time with U.S. soldiers in Iraq, Zemach was taken aback by the dangerous work these troops were doing. "Soldiers who have to clear the roads for the convoys get out of their vehicles and walk the roadsides, kicking boxes."
Under Army policy, when soldiers see a suspicious object, they must call for an explosive-ordnance disposal unit. "The problem is that there is a box every 100 yards" and not nearly enough EOD units to answer every call.
The use of robots in the search for hidden bombs in Iraq is just one piece of an expanding campaign to mitigate insurgents' devastating attacks that have resulted in hundreds of U.S. deaths and thousands of injuries during the past two years.
"We've seen a migration starting last summer to more complex ambushes," said Army Brig Gen. Joseph L. Votel, director of a special Pentagon agency in charge of developing technologies to defeat improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
Insurgents camouflage IEDs in places like road signs, he said. "It's a cat-and-mouse game with us.
"More aggressive use of vehicle IEDs is the emerging technique," Votel said. In recent months U.S. vehicles have been targeted with "explosively formed penetrators" that not even armored trucks can protect against. Shaped charges were first developed after World War I to penetrate tanks and other armored equipment. They are used in the oil and gas industry to open up the rock around drilled wells.
Armoring vehicles so far appears to be the only way to stem the casualties, although officials concede that no amount of armor will guarantee survival.
"It's probably not possible to have enough armor to protect everybody with 100 percent surety," said Lt. …