Fido… Sniffing Bombs, Saving Lives

March 30, 2007

From the title of this post, you might think that Fido is what most of us consider to be man’s best friend, the dog. Though this Fido isn’t a dog, he could prove to be the best friend of the men and and women who are out braving the roads in Iraq and Afghanistan, hoping that they don’t become victims of a roadside bomb. Fido is the first robot who has an integrated explosive sensor. Burlington, Mass.-based iRobot Corp. is filling the military’s first order of 100 in this southwest Ohio city and will ship the robots over the next few months.

Currently, the military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have about 5000 robots that are being used in the battlefields. That number is up from just 150 that were in use in 2004. The robots are used in various situations, from searching caves in Afghanistan to searching buildings in Iraq for insurgents, for the detection of mines to searching out roadside bombs and car bombs. The increased use of robotics, is helping to save the lives of soldiers who would previously do these jobs.

As the war in Iraq enters its fifth year, the federal government is spending more money on military robots and the two major U.S. robot makers have increased production.

Foster-Miller Inc., of Waltham, Mass., recently delivered 1,000 new robots to the military. IRobot cranked out 385 robots last year, up from 252 in 2005.


The readings from Fido’s on-board bomb sensor is displayed on the controller along with images from it’s on-board camera. This allows the Soldier operating Fido the luxury of not having to approach the suspect object. The 7 foot sensor arm on Fido allows it to scan underneath and inside vehicles, so that the Soldier does not have to approach the object or vehicle and perhaps risk the item being detonated.

Specifics about the robots and how the sensor works could not be released due to security issues.

“The sniffer robot is a very good idea because we need some way of understanding ambiguous situations like abandoned cars or suspicious trash piles without putting Soldiers’ lives on the line,” said Loren Thompson, defense analyst with the Washington-based Lexington Institute.

Philip Coyle, senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information in Washington, said the robots could be helpful if they are used in cases where Soldiers already suspect a bomb. But he said explosive-sniffing sensors are susceptible to false positives triggered by explosive residues elsewhere in the area, smoke and other contaminants.

“The Soldiers can begin to lose faith in them, and they become more trouble than they’re worth,” he said.

Though very valuable in the warzone, the robots do have limitations. They have to be controlled by an operator and barriers in the way, may stop or slow down the robot. Because they are made of mechanical and computerized parts, environmental factors. Routine maintenance of these robots is a must. Robots that are currently being used come in various sizes, from 1.5 pound robots that carry cameras into buildings to search for insurgents to the big brutes which weigh up to 110 pounds and are used to move rubble and debris from areas.

Army SSG Shawn Baker has used robots to help detect and disable roadside bombs during his two tours in Iraq. Prior to the availability of the robots, soldiers would Before the robots were available, he and fellow Soldiers would stand back as far as possible with a rope and drag hooks over the suspect devices in hopes that by doing so, the bombs would be detonated or disarmed. Baker knows of two soldiers who were killed that way, though his unit has been lucky.

“The science and technology of this has been way out in front of the production side,” Thomasmeyer said. “We’re going to start to see a payoff for all the science and technology advancements.”


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