Murphy's Law: Cheap And Effective Makes A Comeback


April 18, 2011: After a two year  lull in orders, the U.S. Department of Defense is now scrambling to expand its UGV (unmanned ground vehicle) fleet again. These are the small, remote controlled, robots used to check out possible roadside bombs, or who, or what, is inside a darkened building or cave. Most in the demand are the high-end, tracked vehicles like PackBot, but the demand is so great that the less mobile (no going up and down stairs) UGVs based on radio control trucks are being called back into action. These Marcbots and Bombots saved a lot of lives starting six years ago.

Back in 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense was desperate to get more robots to the troops in Iraq. These small robots, like the Packbot or Talon, were used to check out roadside bombs and similar booby traps. These little machines were saving lots of lives, but there were not enough of them. Costing over $100,000 each, and built carefully to military standards, they could not be produced quickly enough. So a call was put out for other manufacturers to deliver something cheaper, and in larger quantities.

Two companies quickly came up with similar ideas. Basically, the new bot on the block was a a modified remote control dump truck. The cheapest of the two, called a "BomBot," is a four wheel vehicle is equipped with a vidcam that can move independently, and a custom control unit that can make the truck move more precisely and farther from the operator. The 6.8 kg (15 pound) robot is a compact 56x51x46 cm (22x20x18 inches). Troops like the fact that these new bots are smaller and lighter. Since the first models came out, each robot has gone through several generations of improvements. They still look like souped up toy trucks, but are more sturdy, capable and reliable.

The basic drill for a BomBot is to approach (at speeds of up to 15 meters a second) a potential bomb, check it out via the vidcam, and then activate the rear part of the truck to dump a small, remote control, explosive next to the IED, and move away. The explosive is detonated, destroying the IED.

The first BomBots cost about $32,000 each (mostly for R&D and developing the custom components), and the first 300 arrived in Iraq in early 2006. They were very successful, and over 2,000 more were ordered. This brought the unit price down to about $5,000 each. Still a lot for a toy that costs about a hundred bucks at Wal Mart. But BomBot (and its cousin, MarcBot) are much enhanced so they will perform reliably in a hot and dusty combat zone (not a green and temperate suburb). If anyone could do it cheaper, with the same level of performance, the Department of Defense is always open to new offers. The cheap bots are adequate for checking roads for bombs or mines, and that's where most of them will end up.


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