EVERY DAY IN IRAQ, EXPLOSIVE ORDNANCE DISPOSAL TEAMS crisscross the country in a mission to disarm hundreds of roadside bombs, booby traps and cars laden with explosives. It's difficult, hot and dangerous work. But it also saves lives. To help the teams with their mission, the Defense Department sped into theater three kinds of commercial-off-the shelf, lightweight robots designed to lessen their exposure to improvised explosive devices. Five EOD specialists who served in Iraq recently had a chance to address the robot manufacturers, and tell them in sometimes brutally honest terms, what they liked and didn't like about the systems, and describe the often deadly hazards they faced daily. "They most definitely saved peoples lives," Navy Aviation Ordnanceman 1st Class Bryan Bymer said of the robots, at an Institute for Defense and Government Advancement conference. His team responded to 500 calls from April to October 2005 and rendered 328 IEDs safe. They used two of the robots, the Talon, manufactured by Foster-Miller Inc. of Waltham, Mass., and the PackBot, designed by iRobot Corp. of Burlington, Mass. Bymer described a hectic pace with four or five calls per day in areas surrounded by insurgents. Because of these circumstances, "time on target" is crucial, Bymer and the other specialists said. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Shallbetter raved about the Talons ability to boot up as soon as his unit arrived on site. The PackBot takes a few minutes to become operational, and while it may only be 90 to 120 seconds, that seems like an eternity when every minute counts, he said.
The specialists described an enemy who is constantly observing their operations. Dummy bombs are placed along roads, presumably set there to collect intelligence on how they go about their business. "They're always trying to outsmart us, and we re always trying to outsmart them," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ronald Wilson.
Insurgents place rocks, chunks of concrete and garbage near roadside bombs to create obstacles for the robots, in an effort to slow the ordnance teams down and make them stay on site longer. Speed, maneuverability and the ability to climb over curbs are vital for the robots, the specialists said.
Both the PackBot and Talon generally performed well in these areas. A third robot, the Vanguard, manufactured by Allen-Vanguard Inc. of Reston, Va., did not handle the Iraqi terrain well, those who used it in the field said. It worked fine on smooth surfaces, but as soon as it left a road or hit a gravelly surface, the tracks would often come off, said Army Specialist Jacob Chapman.
"We ended up trying to get rid of [the Vanguards] as soon as we could," Chapman said. The robots also had difficulty dealing with the complex radio frequency environment. "It usually wouldn't make it 10 feet past the truck," he added.
The Vanguards were eventually pulled out of Iraq.
Once the robots arrive on site, they have little time to render the area safe. "After we're out for about 30 minutes, we had to start planning on being attacked, or having an ambush waiting for us on the way back," Chapman said.
The specialists all said they would like to see better gripping on the robots' claws, as well as attachments tor digging or raking the ground to look tor hidden wires.
They would also like to see options for using bright, white or infrared lights for nighttimc operations. …