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European edition, Sunday, August 19, 2007

HOHENFELS, Germany — An army of thousands of ground-based robots is helping boost U.S. combat strength and saving lives in Iraq.

According to Staff Sgt. Derek Fenstermacher, who works at Hohenfels’ Joint Multinational Readiness Center training soldiers to use four kinds of robots commonly employed downrange, there were just 126 robots on the ground in Iraq in 2004.

“Now we have over 4,000,” he said. “Conservatively, you could say they have saved thousands of lives,” said Fenstermacher, who spent a year working with robots in Taqaddum, Iraq, before joining JMRC in January.

Army robots, not including the flying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, range from tiny “throw bots” that soldiers can toss through a window to check out the inside of a house to 40-ton remote-controlled tanks used for mine-clearing in Afghanistan, Fenstermacher said.

“This is a tool like a radio or a rifle, and something that is going to allow soldiers to come home to their families,” he said.

Downrange units become very attached to their robots and often name them after females the way bomber crews named their aircraft in World War II, Fenstermacher said.

JMRC — in partnership with the Joint Robotic Repair and Fielding Initiative and the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization — has established a robot center that replicates three sites in Iraq and one in Afghanistan where personnel maintain and sustain military robots. However, the JMRC center focuses mostly on training, he said.

Training is key because robots are already in place downrange and ready for use when units arrive.

“We have units going downrange and falling in on that equipment. Commanders might not realize the potential they have in robotic vehicles and the proper way to utilize them,” Fenstermacher said.

JMRC has 22 robots available for use inside Hohenfels’ Box training area. Units rotating into the Box can receive training on the robots and then sign out the equipment before they start pre-deployment exercises, he said.

Most of the units training with the robots are explosive-ordnance disposal teams or engineers, he said.

One of the robots that soldiers train with at Hohenfels is the MARCbot (Multi-function Agile Remote Control Robot) IV. The $8,000 machine looks similar to a toy car but has a camera mounted on an arm that can look into vehicles or around doors without exposing the machine to danger.

Fenstermacher said the MARCbot is useful for route-clearing, checking out dangerous areas when soldiers are patrolling, scanning suspicious vehicles for IEDs and checking the inside of buildings.

JMRC also operates several larger robots, including the PacBot, Talon and the Mini-Andros, used in explosive-ordnance disposal.

These tracked robots have removable robotic arms and claws that can be used to disable IEDs or unexploded ordnance or to lay charges.

The $110,000 PacBot, for example, has four cameras and four tracks that enable it to climb or descend stairs.

The robots are operated using laptop-size control boxes that include video screens and pre-set control buttons.

“It is easy for people who have grown up playing video games to operate them. The PacBot can be operated using a Play Station-style controller,” Fenstermacher explained.

The robots can be controlled from inside an armored vehicle, and the PacBot and Talon have microphones and speakers that allow operators to communicate with people near the robots, he said.

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