As the improvised explosive device continues to be the weapon of choice used by enemies abroad, robotic technology continues to preserve both life and limb for troops facing the threat of IEDs.
While the use of robotics aboard local bases is generally limited to training exercises, some explosive ordnance disposal Marines, also known as EOD technicians, attached to Camp Lejeune and New River Air Station sometimes use robots to inspect and detonate unexploded ordnance, or UXO, on ranges aboard local bases. While in a deployed setting, the use of robotics is more widespread and focused on the exploitation, salvage and detonation of an IED found by Marines on either a foot or vehicle-mounted patrol. Robots are also used for route reconnaissance, searching vehicles and collecting evidence of dangerous materials.
“Almost anything you can do with your hands, you can do with a robot,” said EOD technician Staff Sgt. Don Baldo, 28, of Camp Lejeune. “A good robot operator can take a situation from start to finish and his team leader will never have to walk down to check out the suspicious item.”
On the base, EOD is used to look at suspicious packages but robots allow reconnaissance to be conducted without the technician putting themselves in harm’s way. Instead of walking down onto an item, Baldo said that robots will be used to see what the item is and to understand the situation as much as possible in order to make an educated decision.
In a deployed setting such as Iraq or Afghanistan, robots are often used to check out suspicious patches of earth. Because of the capabilities of the robots, which cost upward of $160,000, technicians can remain at a safe distance and dig with the robot’s arm to unearth suspicious items. Baldo, a technician for four years, said you send the robot to keep yourself out of danger because IEDs are very unpredictable and robots are more expendable than a human life.
“When you are walking down on an IED, the only thing you can think about is your training,” Baldo said. “You’re paying attention to what is going around you but nothing else crosses your mind. A lot of EOD guys who have been blown up or shot at still complete the mission because all they focus on is the training.”
On the battlefield, according to Sgt. Paul Tabisz, 26, of Sneads Ferry, robots are used as tools much like a weapon is. Because the robots can go up stairs, reach things via an arm and have multiple cameras, Tabisz said they are excellent platforms that are very user-friendly and have saved countless lives by keeping EOD technicians away from potential blast sites.
“You can get it muddy, sandy or wet because it is a very tough system,” Tabisz said. “If it falls over, you can just flip it back over. I haven’t had any issues with the systems since I came to EOD three years ago. Because of these robots, we don’t have to risk our lives unnecessarily. If you’re comfortable with it, it is a great because a robot is a lot easier to replace than a United States Marine.”
Within the combat engineer community robots are also used but for a few different purposes, according to Sgt. Marcus Council, 29, of Camp Lejeune. With night vision and infrared capabilities, combat engineers typically use the robots for route reconnaissance and clearing obstacles. With robots, the possibilities are almost endless, he said.
“Getting a feel for the controls is the most important part because you need to learn how to use the robot’s commands,” Council said. “Once you get the hang of things, robots are one of the best things out there. Hands down, robots save lives.”
The robot, which operates wirelessly, is operated by a variety of controls depending on the platform. In some instances, a computer with a joystick is used and in other cases a Playstation controller is used to maneuver the robot. Either way, according to Council, once you are familiar with the system, a robot is extremely easy to operate.
One of the beautiful things about robots, according to Sgt. Jacob Bublitz, is the versatility of the platforms. One improvement, he said, would be a scraper attached to the robot so when you drive the robot toward an objective it clears a path for Marines and could potentially locate both wires or a pressure plates of an IED, thus saving even more lives.
“The system is very versatile and small enough that it can be transported in a truck,” Bublitz said. “The robot system is designed for a particular mission, but in true Marine Corps fashion, by using ingenuity, you can do just about anything with them.
“They truly are remarkable systems.”