For service members in Afghanistan, every step could be their last.
Improvised explosive devices have become the insurgents' weapon of choice in Afghanistan, and the most deadly for coalition forces. Last year, in Afghanistan alone, 58 percent of coalition casualties were from IEDs, and in 2011 so far, 51 percent, according to iCasualties.org.
Trying to defeat this top killer are defense companies, which are gathering this week at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's 2011 convention in Washington, D.C., to show off the latest in unmanned systems technology -- or simply put, warfighting robots.
The Harris Corp. is one of them. It's developed a robotic arm with "haptic" feedback -- meaning that whatever the remote-controlled arm feels, the operator can feel. If the arm brushes against a wall or hard surface, the operator controlling the arm can feel that tension as if he'd just brushed against a wall or hard surface.
"The soldier can have humanlike dexterity, human like precision, high fidelity control," said Paul Bosscher, chief robotics engineer at the Harris Corp. "They can go up to these roadside bombs, and instead of just blowing them up, they can use the robot to just cut wires, pull blasting caps, surgically defeat the explosive device and in the process save all of this forensic evidence that they use to ID who the bombmakers are, how they're making it, and what their bomb-making methods are."
However, the real test for these technologies is out in the field, according to one Army captain.
"What we need out of a robot is pretty much four main things," said Capt. William Houpt, with the U.S. Army's 717th Explosive Ordnance Disposal. "We need it to be maneuverable [with] the ability to actually get from where we are to where the device is, because, obviously, it does us no good if we just have to pick up the thing and carry it on top of the IED.
"We need it to be transportable for the mission -- meaning that if it's going to go on a vehicle, it has to fit in there. If it's going to be man-transportable, it needs to be lightweight. We need arm and gripper strength, and dexterity ... to be able to interrogate and figure out what's going on."
"That's what we're looking for out of our robotic systems," said Houpt, "and they've definitely saved a number of lives so far. So we're hoping to make them better, because there are certainly different problems that we have with them."
Another company, HDT Robotics Inc., has developed a lightweight, dual-arm robot with three fingers. Kent Massey, director of advanced programs for the company, said some primitive models for military use were used in experiments in the 1960s and 1970s, but this is the first time a dual arm system has been used for military robots. HDT also develops prosthetic arms for DARPA and the National Institutes of Health. According to Massey, Europe and Japan have developed manufacturing models.
"This particular application is for the military engineers who clear the routes of explosives and the explosive ordnance guys who go out there and disarm the bombs," Massey said.
But dual-armed or not, what's most important is saving lives. Earlier this month, a soldier deployed in Afghanistan whose brother had sent him a remote control toy truck equipped with a camera loaned that truck out to six guys on a patrol. The truck ended up triggering a tripwire connected to an IED made of 500 pounds of explosives -- saving the men's lives.
A military officer who was not authorized to give interviews said he was familiar with the story, which provoked some discussion within his office as to why those who need unmanned vehicles would not already have them.
On Friday, the exhibition hall is hosting "Uniform Day," which offers complimentary admission to military and uniformed civil servants, such as police officers and firefighters, perhaps to get feedback from those needing the robots the most.
"Why the robots are here is so that guys can go home to their families at the end of the day," Houpt said.