March 17, 2010

The Hurt Blocker

With the proliferation of improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, robots are the new military heroes

By Leslie Macmillan

In the summer of 2007, Gordon was deployed to Iraq to work on a bomb squad and within three months came back in a box, a casualty of a cheap roadside bomb. A soldier who worked with Gordon wrote, “on Gordon’s final days, he was searching an intersection for a possible buried IED [improvised explosive device]. The IED was detonated about ten feet from his location.”

Gordon—named by the soldiers he served with—is a robot, one of thousands in Iraq used to dispose of buried explosives. Most are given names and, when they “expire,” as the term goes, many are sent back draped with American flags and with accompanying letters explaining how they met their demise. `

Click on the photo to launch a slideshow on the robots that are used to dispose of bombs. Photo: Alonso Nichols

“The troops love the bots,” says Jason Rife, an engineering professor and head of the Tufts Robotics Lab, “because they get blown up instead of them.”

Defensive military robots have made bomb squads more effective than ever, as highlighted in the Oscar-winning movie The Hurt Locker. Developed as a response to the threat of hidden explosives, the remote-controlled devices allow American troops to disable IEDs while staying out of harm’s way. IEDs are the insurgents’ weapon of choice in Iraq. According to the Department of Defense, they are responsible for about 40 percent of all coalition casualties there.
“IEDs have changed the nature of warfare,” says William Martel, an international security expert at the Fletcher School. “Insurgents know the only way to attack a superpower is to use classic insurgent tactics, which aim to kill and maim. But one thing we’re good at in the U.S. is developing technology,” he adds, “and there has been a pretty significant effort by the R&D community to create devices that will detect and mitigate IEDs.”

That effort has led to more defensive military robots, which run on continuous tracks like a tank, weigh about 120 pounds and come equipped with an arm, cameras and sensors. The two top models used by the U.S. military are made by companies with plants in Massachusetts, iRobot and QinetiQ.

“The whole premise of The Hurt Locker is that the robot breaks down, so the humans take over,” says Bob Quinn, A75, A11P, vice president for Talon Robot Operations at QinetiQ North America, which manufactures the Talon bomb disposal robot. “It’s possible, but the vast preponderance of IEDs—roughly 75 percent—are disarmed by robots. Our robots have been used on 112,000 missions,” he adds, to investigate and disarm IEDs. Some 3,000 Talon robots, at a cost of $100,000 each, have been deployed in Iraq.

While IED attacks have leveled off in Iraq, in Afghanistan they’re on the rise, reflecting the growing conflict there. In 2007 there were 2,677 IED incidents in Afghanistan, while in the first two months of 2010 alone there were 1,448, according to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization. Of those, 817 were disabled, while the rest led to injuries of 313 coalition troops and 60 deaths.

At a demonstration of the robots recently at QinetiQ, several Talons were whizzing around a linoleum floor. Standing about knee-high and emitting the high-pitched whine of a kid’s radio-controlled toy, they don’t look or sound like the formidable bomb de-fusers they are. But to the troops who use them, they become battle buddies.

A Perfect Storm

Bombs have been a part of war for hundreds of years. But the coordinated, large-scale use of homemade bombs is new. “The first time we confronted the insurgency problem was in Iraq,” says Martel. “The aim of an insurgency is twofold: to make it more difficult for military forces to operate and to maintain a stream of casualties, which lowers morale both in the troops stationed overseas and on the home front. It is designed to attack the level of support for military intervention.”

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, three factors combined to create what Quinn calls “a perfect storm” in terms of insurgents’ ability to build explosives: the vast supply of cheap consumer electronic devices, instructions easily obtainable on the Internet and readily available explosive materials.

“When the U.S. forces went through Iraq in 2003, they advanced towards Baghdad pretty quickly and didn’t have time to secure all the Iraqi ammunition dumps,” says Quinn.

With a store of munitions at their disposal, the insurgents then improvised a detonation system, guided by instructions on the Internet, and finally added cell phones and garage door openers to provide the triggering device.

Explosives technology has shifted over time, as the U.S. and insurgents try to outwit one another. “You have to adapt to their tactics,” says Richard Shultz, a professor and national security expert at the Fletcher School. “Every time the U.S. developed a new technological means to negate IEDs, the insurgents developed a new way of overcoming that adaptation.”

For example, in response to command-detonated bombs triggered by a device like a cell phone, the U.S. started using electronic jammers to disrupt the signal, Quinn says. The insurgents responded with victim-detonated devices, explosives that are tripped by a person stepping on an underground pressure plate.

With the U.S. military surge in Afghanistan and the increased use of IEDs, the demand for robots has increased, says Quinn, but they will be different from the ones used in Iraq.

Because Iraq has a good road system, robots can be transported in vehicles. In Afghanistan, where the roads are very poor, Quinn says there’s more demand for lightweight, “back-packable” models that soldiers can carry easily. With unpaved roads, it’s easier to conceal roadside bombs. “There’s a five-mile stretch in Afghanistan where there are 1,000 culverts,” says Quinn. “They’re underneath the roads, so it’s a perfect place for hiding explosives. Each of those culverts has to be checked every day.”

Not Losing Their Jobs Any Time Soon

Although the technology continues to evolve and become more sophisticated, soldiers are not in danger of being replaced by robots.

“It’s useful to understand how different robots are from humans. We like to think of them that way, but they’re actually not like humans at all. They’re more like cars,” says Rife, from the Tufts Robotics Lab.

While the human body is a “highly integrated unit” with inherent intelligence that is able to multi-task and use stored energy efficiently, Rife says robots tend to be single-purpose devices that don’t convert stored energy very well. Even though robotics technology has taken a quantum leap from 30 years ago, when robots were mostly of the “fixed-base” variety used to paint cars, they are still a long way off from the ones of popular imagination.

“Rosy on The Jetsons is something that everyone would like—a robot that can wash my dishes and fold my laundry,” Rife says. “But we’re not there yet.”

This means operators are still needed to control robots, and take over when they break down. “Robots aren’t really a way to win the war,” says Seth Kaufman, E02, an engineer at QinetiQ. “It’s part of the effort, but it can’t be the entire solution, which is why we still need troops there.”

For now, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still fought by men and women, ones that are grateful for all the non-human help they can get.

As the soldier who filed the report about Gordon reported, “Now his replacement, Flash, is here to finish his job.”

Leslie Macmillan can be reached at

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