The past, present and future of bomb disposal robots

The past, present and future of bomb disposal robots
An REME corporal repairing a Dragon Runner EOD variant © Crown copyright 2012

Bomb disposal robots have come a long way since the introduction of the Wheelbarrow in 1972, as Government Europa explores.

Of all the roles in the British Army, one of the most dangerous is that of the ammunition technical officer, who has the daunting task of dismantling, defusing and disposing bombs and other explosive ordnance, often in the most hostile and challenging of environments. Making this job safer (if far from risk-free) are bomb disposal robots, unmanned vehicles capable of disabling explosive devices without endangering human lives. In this article, Government Europa chronicles the past, present and future use of this innovative, life-saving technology in the British Army.

The Wheelbarrow

Bomb disposal robots were first invented by Peter Miller, a retired lieutenant-colonel of the British Army who conceived the idea after eight ammunition technical officers of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps lost their lives to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) during the conflict in Northern Ireland in 1971-2.

Based on a modification Miller had made to his lawnmower, the ‘Wheelbarrow’ was assembled out of the chassis of an electrically powered wheelbarrow, a remote-control device, and a spring-loaded hook that could be attached to and used to tow a car. This allowed suspect devices to be safely removed from a scene and bombs or explosives to be detonated where they would not endanger any civilians or military personnel. The later addition of Major Robert John Wilson Patterson’s so-called ‘Pigstick’, a water jet disruptor, enabled it to successfully defuse bombs rather than just transport them.

Since its introduction in 1972, the Wheelbarrow has been through countless revisions, saved hundreds of military and civilian lives, and been destroyed more than 400 times while in operation. But, as technology progresses and the threats facing the armed forces evolve, new, more advanced bomb disposal robots have come forward, offering even greater protection to service personnel on the front line.

Dragon Runner

One such example is Dragon Runner, a lightweight reconnaissance robot developed by scientists at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Melon University (CMU), USA. Originally weighing in at just 20lb, Dragon Runner was developed, according to CMU, as a ‘low-cost rugged alternative to overly heavy, bulky, slow and costly robotic scouts already on the market’ and is light enough that it can be carried around in a specially designed backpack and even thrown out of windows, over fences or from moving vehicles. Later upgrades boast an even lighter design and enable Dragon Runner to open doors and climb stairs.

The innovative multi-terrain robot also features high-speed capabilities, is easy to manoeuvre, and can dig around, pick up and even move objects thanks to its manipulator arm. The easy-to-use system requires little formal operator training and can be deployed in under three seconds. Dragon Runner is also able to place small charges in order to disrupt suspect items and can operate in the dark with the aid of onboard infrared capabilities.

Dragon Runner was acquired by the British Army as part of its urgent operational requirements in support of explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) activity in Afghanistan in 2009 and is used to help identify and deactivate IEDs.

The Harris T7

More recently, in September, then defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon announced a £55m (~€63m) contract for 56 innovative bomb disposal robots for use by the British Army. The T7 robots, which will be purchased from US robotics manufacturer Harris under the Ministry of Defence’s Project Starter, will be used to support UK EOD missions across the globe, and will also assist with hazardous materials (HAZMAT) clean-up, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and special weapons and tactics missions.

“With our rising defence budget, we are investing in the latest equipment for our Armed Forces to tackle the growing threats we face,” Sir Michael said. “These state-of-the-art bomb disposal robots will be powerful and reliable companions to our troops on the battlefield, keeping them safe so they can help keep us safe.”

The T7 robots’ many features include:

  • High-definition cameras;
  • High-speed datalinks;
  • An adjustable manipulation arm; and
  • A track system specially designed to cope with rough terrain.

A haptic feedback function provides operators with human-like dexterity, while an intuitive control interface ensures ease of use as well as offering a high degree of command and control. Operators will even be able to disable and defeat IEDs planted in vehicles thanks to various attachments that allow for the use of standard-issue sensors, disruptors and tools.

Together, these features are expected to help improve mission effectiveness and shorten the time it takes to complete a task.

“This award will bring life-saving technology to UK forces in the field and reaffirms the importance of highly reliable, precise and easy-to-use robotic systems for EOD operators,” said Harris Electronic Systems president Ed Zoiss. “During Project Starter’s assessment trials in 2016, T7 successfully demonstrated to the UK MoD the manoeuvrability, reliability, and capability required for the toughest EOD missions.”

All 56 of the bomb disposal robots are expected to be delivered to the UK and in service by December 2020. They will replace the current Wheelbarrow Mk8b robots, which have been in service since 1995, and will be supported by engineers at Harris EDO MBM Technology in Brighton, where the contract is anticipated to sustain ten highly skilled jobs.

EOD is a complex and demanding task, but thanks to ever-more advanced technologies like the Wheelbarrow, Dragon Runner and T7 Harris bomb disposal robots, it has also become a far safer one, too.

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