The Pentagon’s anti-IED squad is making plans to send 400 small, throwable robots to Afghanistan for operational user tests later this year, with the potential for thousands more to come as the military rushes to find solutions to counter the record-setting number of makeshift bombs that have long been the biggest killer of American troops there.
Last June, the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) received an urgent request from commanders in Afghanistan looking for smaller, lighter robots mounted with cameras that soldiers could carry with them on dismounted patrols to do things like peek into culverts (a favorite place for Taliban fighters to hide IEDs) and toss over the tall mud walls that surround many rural homes. JIEDDO quickly identified six different 'bots that met the operational requirements, and by July was testing them at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) while working with the manufacturers to tweak their designs.
The request comes at a time when the number of IEDs have hit another all-time high, with 16,554 having been cleared or detonated over the past year, up from 15,225 in the previous reporting period according to USA Today.
Of the six bots identified, four would be selected for further testing and 100 platforms from each competitor were ordered at a cost of $22 million. “The requirement was presented to us in terms of weight and survivability,” Herbert Frasier, systems engineer working with JIEDDO tells Aviation Week. But different platforms have different capabilities, and just because one may be light—the competitors range in weight from 1.5 lbs. to 15 lbs.—doesn’t make it the best solution. In fact, “the top performer was the heaviest robot,” he says.
“What the NIST did was allow us to go to the warfighter and say ‘hey look, this is what you’re going to sacrifice when you cut weight,' and basically we selected the platforms that we did because they felt that that was the medium ground between weight and performance” Matt Way, program integrator at JIEDDO, added. “It’s very likely that not just one system is going to be the final solution,” Way said, suggesting that if the program is picked up it will probably a diversified buy.
The four ‘bots selected include the Armadillo, a 5.5 lb. system made by MacroUSA. Built to withstand 2.5 meter drops onto concrete or 8 meter horizontal throws, it comes with 5 full color day/night cameras with 4x digital zoom. It can also operate about 300 meters in line-of-sight range, and 200 meters non-line-of-sight.
QinetiQ’s Dragon Runner 10 was also selected, and it clocks in at just over 10 lbs., 15 in. long, 13.5 in. wide and 5.8 in. tall. It carries payloads including sensors, cameras, and robotic arms, while maintaining effective wireless communication over long distances. Like the other throwable robots, when thrown the DR10 can automatically right itself. The system was also deployed with British troops in Afghanistan in 2009.
Robot king iRobot is also in the running with its “FirstLook,” a 5 lb. throwable robot that can survive a 15 ft. drop onto concrete and operate for up to six hours without a charge, while spending 10 hours shooting streaming video while stationary. The ‘bot is 10 in. long, 9 in. wide and 4 in. tall.
Finally comes Recon Robotics’ ReconScout XT, which weighs just 1.2 lbs. and can be thrown up to 120 ft. or be dropped 30 ft. The order doesn’t mark the first time that the ReconScout has been purchased by the U.S. military. In 2011, the Army purchased about 700 of the ‘bots in two deals, and one can probably assume that most ended up in Afghanistan. JIEDDO’s integration branch chief, Navy CDR Jack Downes says that testing continues, and that all of the industry teams have been working to make tweaks as the schedule grinds on. He wouldn’t provide a time frame for when the robots will head overseas—other than it should be this year—but with the number of IEDs continuing to spike, the dismounted troops in the field are looking for any edge they can find.