By Daniel Lafontaine
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — U.S. Army engineers in Afghanistan recently designed and fabricated a tool to help Soldiers investigate possible improvised explosive devices from a safer distance.
Capt. Chad M. Juhlin, commander of the 53rd Ordnance Company (EOD), said his Soldiers needed an attachment for use with the iRobot 310-SUGV when searching for IEDs. The iRobot’s explosive ordnance disposal capabilities were limited, requiring Soldiers to operate close to the potential hazards.
The forward deployed engineering cell from the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, took on the challenge.
The RDECOM Field Assistance in Science and Technology-Center developed the first iteration of the “batwing” in January for Combined Joint Task Force Paladin. It is a collapsible hook that attaches to a telescoping pole for interrogating a site believed to contain explosives.
The same tools needed to be modified for attachment to robot arms.
Two engineers and two technicians adapted the RFAST-C’s existing “batwing” command wire detection hook so it could be used with the EOD team’s iRobot arm, and they delivered the products in two weeks.
“RFAST-C provides a great opportunity for Soldiers on the ground to submit a requirement on the battlefield that will eventually turn into a product,” Juhlin said. “Having these capabilities in theater not only decreases the lead time to obtain the product but allows for easy manipulation to the item if needed.”
The RFAST-C’s modified “batwing” design provides multiple tools for remote IED operations, including a hook for grabbing or cutting command wire, a rake for breaking up soil, and a spade for moving and digging up items, said Mark Woolley, who led the project for RFAST-C. He is an electrical engineer with RDECOM’s Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center.
RFAST-C Director Mike Anthony said both the first-generation “batwing” for telescoping poles and the subsequent modification for robots have received positive feedback from Soldiers in the field.
The Joint IED Defeat Organization requested 670 original “batwings” for Special Operations Forces and EOD units worldwide. CJTF Paladin requested 50 iRobot “batwings,” in addition to the 10 already delivered to the 53rd Ordnance Company.
Anthony said the partnership between the 53rd Ordnance Company and RFAST-C was made possible by Scott Heim, a mechanical engineer with RDECOM’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center who is assigned to the Science and Technology Assistance Team at the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan at Bagram Airfield.
Heim said one of his major duties is to help Soldiers with a technological need connect with the RFAST-C.
“This example is just one of many projects that have been successful with FAST entities collaborating with users and developing requirements in a collective environment,” Heim said. “Working with the RFAST-C, we can provide rapid prototyping designs to facilitate an evaluation as to whether it meets the user’s needs or if a couple of modifications are needed before production is started.”
After analyzing the iRobot’s capabilities, RFAST-C personnel cut, bent and welded a proof of concept in minutes to conduct a real-time test, Heim said. The prototype functioned well, but it also revealed some weaknesses and potential optimization features. The team made changes for a second version, which was then successfully manufactured.
Nick Merrill, a mechanical engineer with RDECOM’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, assisted in the design of the iRobot “batwing.” He said the collaboration with the Soldiers helped the team quickly develop a prototype.
“This project was unique in how we came up with the original prototype. Most projects, we sit down and brainstorm. For this one, they brought the robot in, we looked at it and how it grasps objects,” Merrill said. “Within 20 minutes of them being on-site, we had a quick, very rough prototype. Not very often does something get off the ground that quick.”