Magazine article National Defense

Explosive Ordnance Disposal Robot Program at Risk of Collapse

Magazine article National Defense

Explosive Ordnance Disposal Robot Program at Risk of Collapse

Article excerpt

* 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. …

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