Trying to Give Bomb Squad Robots Brains to Match Their Brawn

By DANIEL SORID - New York Times

June 22, 2000

Sometimes confusion is the mother of invention. A researcher
at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque is trying to
devise software that will make bomb squad robots easier to
use. That will help law enforcement agencies put machines,
rather than people, in harm's way when a bomb is suspected.

The robots are already sophisticated and capable in many
ways. The problem is that they can be difficult to use.

The Albuquerque Police Department is a case in point. After
several years of seeking money for a robot to help disarm
explosives, the department spent $160,000 in 1998 for a
remote-controlled robot called Andros, built by Remotec, a
subsidiary of Northrop Grumman.

The Albuquerque department, which responds to bomb threats
statewide, had one of only two such robots in New Mexico.

Andros came with an impressive resume. It was designed to
pick up a suspicious device and put it in a safe container
or use one of its tools to disarm or otherwise disrupt a

But soon after the robot was delivered, the department
realized that there was a problem.

Even though Remotec had given some basic training to
department personnel, the officers were having trouble
manipulating the robot.

Andros is a capable machine. It can climb stairs and
maneuver through difficult terrain, even crossing ditches.
It is sealed to withstand extreme environments and can work
on almost any kind of surface. Most important, it has tools
to counteract bombs. Remotec will not describe those tools,
it says, because it does not want to make that information
available to terrorists.

Andros and other bomb squad robots are generally slow,
traveling no faster than five miles per hour, but their
every motion must be controlled by a human operator. And
since the Albuquerque bomb squad officers train with the
robot only about two hours a month, they have found it hard
to master its remote controls.

So while the department says that it has put Andros in
service about a dozen times, the robot has only inspected
suspicious packages, not disarmed them. Someone from the
bomb squad still needs to suit up in 110 pounds of gear to
do the real work of keeping the bomb from injuring anyone.
"There have been several other situations where we could
have used it," said Capt. Ray Schultz, "but we just weren't
comfortable with our proficiency."

That problem attracted the attention of Phil Bennett, a
mechanical engineer at Sandia, a Department of Energy
laboratory operated by a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin. Mr.
Bennett is using the laboratory's technology to make bomb
squad robots better.

In March, Mr. Bennett asked to observe the Albuquerque
police officers in practice situations.

He wanted to learn about the difficulties they were having
in controlling Andros and to use that information to design
a robot that would be easier to run. The department agreed
to his request.

What Mr. Bennett found was that while bomb squad robots had
been designed to be sturdy and accurate, the controls were

As a result, the robots were being underused by security
officers. "The option of a robot sounds attractive until you
look at what comes off the shelf," Mr. Bennett said. "What
we're trying to do is speed up the process of getting the
job done."

Shawn Farrow, vice president for marketing at Remotec, the
world's largest manufacturer of hazardous-duty robots, said
that its robots were effective and that it had sold 700 of
them. Mr. Barrow said that while automation could make the
robots complete their tasks faster, speed was less important
than accuracy in bomb situations.

Mr. Bennett's plan is to adapt for bomb robots a piece of
software developed at Sandia for robots that help clean up
after environmental disasters. That software, called Smart,
for Sandia Modular Architecture for Robotics and
Teleoperation, allows a robot to use components, like
sensors, made by different vendors.

With better controls, the tough guys of the robot world
could be more widely used to disarm explosives.

Instead of being completely manually controlled, a robot
equipped with Smart could be given sensors that would allow
it to make some decisions on its own. The robot could figure
out the best path to a point in a room, center itself in a
doorway or grip a bomb on its own. That would free security
personnel to focus on what steps to take when there was a
bomb threat, Mr. Bennett said, rather than focusing on
controlling the robot's every move.

It could take up to three years of development, testing and
evaluation before bomb squad robots controlled by Smart
software could be manufactured and sold by the private
sector, Mr. Bennett said.

If all goes well, he said, the robots will be able to
complete their tasks in half the time they do now. And as
terrorists develop new types of bombs, a robot using Smart
could adapt to the new threats.

"Handling bomb threats is one of law enforcement's most
treacherous tasks," Mr. Bennett said. Smarter robots "will
take some of the burden off the operator's mind while he's
figuring out what to do next."

And while it will be difficult to switch the current
generation of robots to the Smart system, upgrades will be
easy for robots built with Smart controls. That will help
law enforcement agencies save money, Mr. Bennett said.

"Police agencies have a very limited budget," he said, "and
those who can afford to have a robot, or who have gone
through the pain of getting funds allocating to buy a robot,
want to use them for as many situations as they can." While
many major cities, like New York, have bomb-disrupting
robots, the technology may be picked up by smaller cities
when it becomes more adaptable and easily upgradable.

Fortunately, the Albuquerque Police Department has never
suffered an injury or death from a bomb, Captain Schultz
said. But now that the squad has had a taste of using robots
to handle bomb threats, he wants robots to play a greater
role in their policing -- once they become easier to use.

"We got this great robot," he said. "We want to be able to
use it to our full potential."

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