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Monday, March 06, 2017

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Weapons of the War in Afghanistan: Military Robots, Part I

Weapons of the War in Afghanistan

In the world of war, weapons and technology are ever changing, each war is characterized by the weapons and tactics used to fight it. As new environments and enemies are encountered, the parties to those wars develop new - more effective tactics, technologies, and weapons to counter and defeat their adversaries. The ingenuity seen in war has existed since (and most certainly before) the first wars of recorded history and continue to this very day. 

Keeping with that theory, let’s take a look at the weapons that have characterized the wars and conflicts that the United States has been a party to over the course of it’s history. During the course of this series, I aim to breakdown the weapons used in each conflict by their classification, and to which party they were employed by. Having served in combat operations in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, I would like to start our series with the War in Afghanistan. 

For our seventeenth installment let's take a look the most common military robots used in the War in Afghanistan. 


Part I: The United States

PackBot is a series of military robots by iRobot, an international robotics company founded in 1990. More than 2000 were used in Iraq and Afghanistan.They were then used again to aid searching through the debris of the World Trade Center after 9/11 in 2001. Another instance of the PackBot technology being implemented was to the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami where they were the first to assess the site. As of November 2014, the U.S. Army is refurbishing 224 iRobot 510 robots. The PackBot technology is also used in collaboration with NASA for their rovers and probes.

The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) has a partnership with the company, iRobot. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a facility responsible for the development of robotic space-crafts as well as the Deep Space Network. Among these space-crafts are the rovers sent to the planet Mars. The rovers Spirit and Opportunity sent to Mars in 2003 are just two of the rovers managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Mars is not the only place employing iRobot technology. In 2011, Japan was rocked by a strong earthquake causing a meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor. Two PackBot rovers were deployed into the ruins of the nuclear power plant to assess damage where the radioactivity was at high enough levels prohibiting humans from exploring.

The projects involving the cooperation of iRobot and NASA allowed the creation of high-tech machines. The much needed physical structure of the robots was designed by iRobot while the instruments and science equipment onboard was provided by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

PackBot 510 is the current base model. It uses a videogame-style hand controller to make it more familiar to young operators. Configurations include:

  • PackBot 510 with EOD Bomb Disposal Kit designed for improvised explosive device identification and disposal.
  • PackBot 510 with Fast Tactical Maneuvering Kit designed for infantry troops tasked with improvised explosive device inspection. This is a lighter weight robot.
  • PackBot 510 with First Responder Kit designed to help SWAT teams and other first responders with situational awareness.
  • PackBot 510 with HazMat Detection Kit collects air samples to detect chemical and radiological agents.
  • PackBot 510 with Fido utilizes the Fido Explosives Detector from ICx Technologies as a payload in order to "sniff" out explosive materials. With the Fido, the PackBot now has the capability of locating explosive devices and subsequently disarming them using on-board robotic capabilities.
  • PackBot 510 with REDOWL Sniper Detection Kit utilizes the Acoustic Direction Finder from BioMimetic Systems to localize gunshots with azimuth, elevation, and range.
  • RC2 – U.S. Marine Corps version of the 510 PackBot with a longer and stronger arm, more cameras, communications variations, and better track propulsion.

PackBot 510 has a maximum speed of 5.8 mph, and weighs 31.6 lbs. The robot can traverse mud, rocks, stairs, and other surfaces due to its caterpillar track. The robot also has zero radius turn capability, and can climb up to a 60 degree incline. The dual BB-2590/U Li-ion rechargeable batteries allow for the robot to have a run time of 4 to 8 hours. Adaptive Materials Inc. (AMI) has created a power pod battery capable of extending the life of the PackBot. The power pod weighs 13 lbs and allows for extension of battery life to reach 12 hours. It can maneuver in up to 3 feet of water. PackBot has more than 40 accessories which are illustrated in PackBot 510 variants. Additionally, the robot can communicate up to 1000 meters (3281 feet), and captures information through four cameras with night vision, zoom, and illumination capabilities that allow for real time image processing.

The main use of the Packbot in the field is IED detection and diffusion. The Packbot Scout was the first deployment of the Packbot and sent to Afghanistan in 2002 to explore caves and bunkers. This model was the simplest Packbot which contained just a robotic arm and camera. As of 2007 Packbots have been deployed to aid in the detection of sniper fire in the middle east. Acoustic signatures detected by the robot allow ground troops to pin point sniper fire in battle. Packbot has also been used to explore buildings and other possibly dangerous areas with the modified light Packbot Explorer which only weighs 30 pounds and is faster than the Packbot 510. In addition, iRobot sent two Packbot 510 robots to Japan after the Tsunami and Earthquake destroyed Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The robot was used on several reconnaissance missions at the power plant to remove debris and measure radiation readings.

The Foster-Miller TALON remotely operated vehicle is a small, tracked military robot designed for missions ranging from reconnaissance to combat.

Foster-Miller claims the TALON is one of the fastest robots in production, one that can travel through sand, water, and snow as well as climb stairs. The TALON transmits in color, black and white, infrared, and/or night vision to its operator, who may be up to 1,000 m away. It can run off lithium-ion batteries for a maximum of 7 days on standby independently before needing recharging. It has an 8.5 hour battery life at normal operating speeds, 2 standard lead batteries providing 2 hours each and 1 optional Lithium Ion providing an additional 4.5 hours. It can also withstand repeated decontamination allowing it to work for long periods of time in contaminated areas. It was used in Ground Zero after the September 11 attacks working for 45 days with many decontaminations without electronic failure. This led to the further development of the HAZMAT TALON.

It weighs less than 100 lb or 60 lb for the Reconnaissance version. Its cargo bay accommodates a variety of sensor payloads. The robot is controlled through a two-way radio or a Fiber-optic link from a portable or wearable Operator Control Unit (OCU) that provides continuous data and video feedback for precise vehicle positioning.

  • Regular (IED/EOD) TALON: Carries sensors and a robotic manipulator, which is used by the U.S. Military for explosive ordnance disposal and disarming improvised explosive devices.
  • Special Operations TALON (SOTAL): Does not have the robotic arm manipulator but carries day/night color cameras and listening devices; lighter due to the absence of the arm, for reconnaissance missions.
  • SWORDS TALON: For small arms combat and guard roles. Tested in December 2003 in Kuwait prior to deployment in Iraq.
  • HAZMAT TALON: Uses chemical, gas, temperature, and radiation sensors that are displayed in real time to the user on a hand-held display unit. It is now being tested by the US Armament Research Development and Engineering Center ARDEC.

The robot costs approximately $60,000 in its standard form. Foster-Miller was subsequently bought out by QinetiQ, a United Kingdom military developer.

SWORDS or the Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System, is a weaponized version being developed by Foster-Miller for the US Army. The robot is composed of a weapons system mounted on the standard TALON chassis. The current price of one unit is $230,000; however, Foster-Miller claims that when it enters mass production the price may drop to between $150,000 and $180,000.

There are a variety of different weapons that can be placed on the SWORDS; M16 rifle, 5.56 mm SAW M249, 7.62 mm M240 machine gun, .50 cal M82 Barrett rifle, a six barreled 40 mm grenade launcher or quad 66 mm M202A1 FLASH incendiary weapon.

SWORDS units have demonstrated the ability to shoot precisely. It is not autonomous, but instead has to be controlled by a soldier using a small console to remotely direct the device and fire its weapons. Foster-Miller are currently at work on a "Game Boy" style controller with virtual-reality goggles for future operators.

In 2007, three SWORDS units were deployed to Iraq. Each unit is armed with a M249 machine gun. This deployment marks the first time that robots are carrying guns into battle; however, their weapons have remained unused as the Army has never given the go-ahead for using them. The Army stopped funding the SWORDS robots after deploying the initial three robots. Foster-Miller is working on a successor: the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS)

By August 2013, the Smithsonian Institution had acquired a SWORDS robot for its collection. One is also on display at the National Infantry Museum in Fort Benning, Georgia.

The Talon has been deployed in military service since 2000 - for example, in Bosnia for the movement of munitions and EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) to get rid of grenades. It was also used in Ground Zero after the September 11th attacks in search and recovery. It is the only robot used in this effort that did not require any major repair. Foster-Miller claims the Talon was used for a classified mission by US Special Forces in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan as well as in an EOD role. In Iraq its standard role has been performing EOD and IED destruction missions. Its combat SWORDS version is now being used there in a guard role protecting front line buildings from attack. According to Foster-Miller, the robot has performed around 20,000 EOD missions in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As of late 2014, the Army was refurbishing 353 Talon IV robots, with 296 going to Army engineers and 57 for the Army National Guard.

Shawn in the Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan.

For more info on these and other weapons
Technical specs compiled from:

"The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement."

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Shawn in the Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan.

For more info on these and other weapons
Technical specs compiled from:

"The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement."


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