Dobbins hosts EOD teams from around the world, tests new technology

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Andrew Park
  • 94th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

DOBBINS AIR RESERVE BASE, Ga. -- A group of explosive ordnance disposal technicians gathered around a set of displays under a tent set up about 20 yards from a small, yellow cinder block building. Inside the building are several rooms, one of which appears to be a makeshift laboratory for manufacturing crystal methamphetamine. The technician in the middle of the pack held an Xbox controller modified to control an EOD robot, which he used to maneuver the robot around the dark, confined space toward a locked cabinet inside one of the rooms. The technicians relied on the robot’s camera to examine the cabinet doors and to determine the best way of opening each one. Taped to the inside of the doors is a clue to the combination for opening a padlocked door housing simulated explosive material. Tensions escalated as the robot’s pincher slowly gripped one of the door handles. The robot operator lowered the arm and reversed the robot, opening the door ever so slightly. As the robot inched back, it lost its grip and the handle slid out of the robot’s grasp. The door slammed shut.

This was one of several training scenarios featured at this year’s Eastern National Robot Rodeo, hosted at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga. and featuring participants from the Air Force, Navy, Army, Cobb County Police Department, and the Royal Air Force. The event began on Aug. 21 and lasted until Aug. 25.

Three partners sponsored the event: the Technical Support Working Group of the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office, the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory and the Air Force Civil Engineer Center.

“Those three funding partners have come together with the joint mission of trying to identify robotics capabilities, where the gaps in current technology are and where we need to go forward to improve,” said Master Sgt. Richard Swann, 94th EOD flight operations section chief. “In order to do that we’ve brought in a good mix of civilian bomb squads and military bomb squads because we use a lot of the same technology and same equipment.”

“This rodeo is a win-win across the board,” said Col. Tanya Anderson, AFCEC Readiness Director at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. “We are able to practice our interoperability to work with our mission partners and local communities, and we are able to work on improving our capabilities. We are also able to give the developers and contractors immediate feedback, as well as provide new ideas on how different aspects of their technology could help in other areas.”

The Robot Rodeo included seven different training scenarios throughout the week-long event.

The scenarios ranged from removing explosives from a large vehicle improvised explosive device to handling a small jar of an explosive chemical compound locked inside a cabinet drawer. Each of the scenarios relied on different sized robots and techniques for completing the mission.

There was a bit of a competitive element to the event as well, with each of the groups forming teams to compete for a top prize after being assessed on their ability to complete the various training scenarios; however, the competition isn’t the primary factor of the Robot Rodeo.
“We try to add some competition to it, just so it’s fun for the teams,” Swann said. “They’ve got a vested interest. They want to win. But the bigger picture for the funding partners is that we collect those technology gaps.”

The event also allowed the robot developers and contractors to see how their creations fared in real-world training scenarios. As is often the case with research and development, what might work theoretically on paper or in a laboratory doesn’t always equate to success in the field. This was also a good time for EOD technicians to try their hand at using a robot different than those they normally use.

“It highlights areas where even though robots and technology have progressed to this amazing point that it is now, there are still things that it can’t do that would be nice from a bomb tech’s perspective because it makes it even safer for us,” explained Swann. “That’s what each of those scenarios is designed to do: to target a different task or a different capability of each robot.”

In designing the different scenarios, the evaluators relied on a variety of locations both on and off base to provide realistic situations for testing the robots’ capabilities. The event coordinators teamed up with explosive specialists from the Transportation Security Administration to create training scenarios at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, said Swann.

Most of the training scenarios pitted one team against another, but for the airport scenarios, two teams worked together to complete the mission of retrieving explosive material from a piece of luggage. Swann said they purposely paired up teams that might not get a chance to regularly work together and could therefore learn different approaches – for instance, a military and a civilian team might work together or a U.S. military team with the RAF team.

“We worked with the Army team yesterday at the airport, and they had a different mindset on how to attack certain things, which was interesting and helped out some, so I think we helped each other there,” said Senior Airman Tyler McMillan-Wammack, 20th Civil Engineer Squadron EOD journeyman at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C.

Each scenario began with a representative from the robot manufacturer training EOD on using the robot by one the representatives from the robot manufacturer. Technicians took turns driving the robot while learning its basic controls.

The training scenario featuring the locked cabinet containing the mock explosive chemical compound forced teams to work together to figure out how to best use the robot’s abilities to overcome a variety of challenges. Working through these challenges allowed the team to eventually find the best angle for approaching one of the doors containing a number for the combination padlock. After several attempts of the spring-loaded door slamming shut, they regrouped, came up with different ideas based on their experience and training with the robot. On their next try, they opened the door and recorded the first number.

“If seven teams are competing, you’re going to see seven different approaches,” Swann said. “It’s good to get that variety so when you find out what may look like a capabilities gap for one team, the next team does it with no problem. Maybe that’s not a technology gap; maybe that’s a robot operator training gap.”

At the end of each training scenario, the evaluators discussed the scoring with the teams, identifying what went well while also giving advice for overcoming challenges based on what other teams found successful. The teams also had the opportunity to provide feedback of their own on the robot’s capabilities to perform the mission. This critique also provided helpful feedback to the contractors which ultimately helps them to create better, safer robots to be used in real-world scenarios.

“We’re the end user,” said Swann. “We use robots. They’re a tool for us. To do events like this, it leads to better, more capable tools that make our job safer. The funding partners get more information to direct their research dollars, so they’re not wasting money researching technology that’s no longer really needed and can focus on things the field actually wants and try to get it ready for implementation.”