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Research lab applies robotic technology to mission

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFPN) -- On June 25, 1996, the military community was devastated when several American military members were killed and many more injured, including some local civilians, when the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, were bombed.

Following this tragic event, Air Force officials identified a need to safely remove or disable terrorist bombs, called improvised explosive devices, remotely from suspect vehicles. Systems at that time were too small to remove bombs in such incidents, so the Air Force Research Laboratory's airbase technologies division here began working on alternatives.

The result is a robotic system known as the all-purpose remote transport system, or ARTS.

ARTS is a commercially available landscaping tractor with a robotics upgrade developed by the research lab and manufactured by Applied Research Associates. In its infancy, ARTS was designed to use a set of forks for picking up and moving suspect vehicles. Additionally, a high velocity water cannon was developed to gain access and disable terrorist devices. Today, however, ARTS has gone through many changes, and improved technology has paved the way for new applications for this unique system.

To better protect explosive ordnance disposal specialists who must locate and dispose of hazardous material, such as unexploded munitions, the research lab here is finding new ways for EOD troops to accomplish their mission in a safer manner.

"Our goal is to develop technologies to protect, support and augment the warfighter," said Sue Hamner, research lab science and technology information coordinator. "We base our developments on user feedback and requirements and cost-effective solutions, while also taking into consideration agile combat support contingency missions."

There are several projects currently being developed at the research lab, such as a set of robotic arms that, once attached to the ARTS, can be used to remotely manipulate nearly any object a human can physically manipulate. This system is aptly named articulated remote manipulation system, or ARMS, and features dual "joysticks" on moveable arms that the operator uses to control the robotic arms. The arms are also pressure sensitive and provide sensory feedback to the user via the joysticks.

Manipulation is achieved by viewing the working area on a monitor that receives real-time imagery from a camera mounted on the ARTS.

Other EOD-related projects include high-velocity water cannons, lasers and even rifles that can be mounted on the ARTS as separate attachments. These attachments are known as stand-off munitions disruption devices and are used to disrupt or detonate explosive devices. Also, a skid has been developed that will allow ARTS to "carry" the EOD's current robot, the Mark VI, into an environment that would otherwise be inaccessible to the system.

One of the latest research lab developments is a munitions-clearing attachment designed for ARTS. The brainchild of Brian Skibba, research lab robotics project manager, the attachment is a commercially available power rak" that has been modified to dig up ordnance, such as mines and grenades. According to Skibba, the attachment enables EOD specialists to clear larger areas more precisely and quickly.

"There are systems available right now, such as the Joint Project Office 'mini-flail' system, but it is more expensive and offered as a stand-alone unit rather than an attachment," said Skibba.

The difference between the power rake and the flail system is that the flail system is used to beat ordnance with chains or flails, whereas the power rake can dig up ordnance, Skibba said. What this means is that live ordnance is almost sure to be detonated by a flail, whereas the power rake will safely turn the soil to reveal the device, thus allowing personnel to safely remove or disable it without damaging the system.

Also, the power rake assembly is offered as a bolt-on attachment that costs $15,000 compared to $75,000 for the ARTS mini-flail and $200,000 for the Joint Project Office mini-flail. Furthermore, there is no video feed from the mini-flail system, so use is limited to a visual range of 1,000 feet. The ARTS real-time video feed, on the other hand, allows operators to complete their tasks at distances up to 3 miles.

"This system is unique because we can extract munitions 4 to 8 inches deep with a piece of equipment that is lighter and less expensive," Skibba said. "This saves the Air Force money and reduces the size of the deployment package."

Similarly, John Hagan, research lab test director, pointed out that although the system's intended use is for smaller ordnance, such as mines and grenades, it has successfully dug up anti-tank mines at a depth of 8 inches.

ARTS recently underwent live ordnance testing at Tyndall's research lab test range. Various pieces of live ordnance were detonated near sensitive parts of the system to determine the type and amount of damage it could sustain. The results, according to Skibba, were favorable.

During one test, a hand grenade was placed under the front tire of the rake assembly and detonated. The tire, consisting of a rim and thick rubber sheets pressed together only costs $25, but proved to be worth more than that during the testing. The resulting damage from the grenade blast was minimal.

"We probably could have repeated this test six or seven times and the wheel would still have worked, whereas any other tire would have been destroyed," Skibba said.

During the testing of any system, engineers and project managers are typically hesitant about placing their test subject in harm's way due to the expensive nature of their machines. Ironically, Skibba and his team are willing to put their system through any test to ensure the safety of the people who will be operating it.

"We want to create a realistic test environment, and different explosives do different things," Skibba said. "We don't want to lose a test vehicle, but because of the minimal cost of the equipment, we can test this system to equipment failure if we want to."

With the successes achieved by the team and the ARTS power rake at Tyndall, the research lab is preparing to take the system on the road. Further testing will consist of real-world applications at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., where it will be used to clear sub-munitions from the Nellis range, followed by testing at Hill AFB, Utah, where it will be put through its paces clearing munitions fuse caps from the range.

If the testing continues to be successful, the power rake system could be operational within two years, officials said. (Courtesy of Air Education and Training Command News Service)

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