Bomb Squads to Compete in Annual Robot Rodeo

Sandia National Laboratories’ Gemini-Scout Mine Rescue Robot is equipped to handle any number of obstacles, including rubble piles and flooded rooms, to help rescuers reach trapped miners safely and efficiently. Photo by Randy Montoya

Sandia National Laboratories is this week hosting the 11th annual Western National Robot Rodeo, a four-day event (22-25 May) where civilian and military bomb squad teams get practice using robots to defuse diverse, dangerous situations.

Robots are life-saving tools for these emergency response teams, providing them a buffer from danger. Sandia Lab says that ten teams from around the southwest will compete in ten events to see who can use their robots the quickest and safest in realistic, simulated scenarios. The top three teams will receive trophies, but the bomb squads are mostly after bragging rights, said Jake Deuel, Sandia robotics manager and Robot Rodeo coordinator.

“The teams are usually frustrated with us by the second scenario, and that’s a good sign that we’ve developed challenging scenarios. If it’s easy, it’s a waste of their time,” said Deuel. “The whole point of the Robot Rodeo is to help these guys and gals understand where the operational edge of their equipment and procedures are, so that they don’t go over that edge during a real-life call.”

Scenarios from previous years include removing a mock explosive device from an airplane or train car, removing simulated fuel rods from a damaged nuclear power reactor, and locating and removing radiation sources from a mock village. In 2015, the bomb squads collaborated with an unmanned aerial vehicle, colloquially known as a drone. The UAV provided situational awareness and oversight for the ground robotic team, allowing them to locate and inspect suspicious items faster and more efficiently.

Sandia works with Los Alamos National Laboratory to put on the annual competition. This year instructors from the FBI’s Hazardous Devices School also will run several of the training sessions and events. In addition, one of the scenarios this year will involve locating a mock “radioactive” liquid leak and mitigating it, perhaps with a robotic bucket brigade.

“We keep coming back to the Robot Rodeo because it’s a training opportunity that really pushes our skill set with the robots,” said Sgt. Carlos Gallegos, commander of the Albuquerque Police Department’s bomb squad, whose team has attended the rodeo every year and won twice. “We appreciate Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories for taking the time to put on such a beneficial week for the local bomb squads.”

Teams scheduled to participate this year include Kirtland Air Force Base Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team – the defending champions; Albuquerque Police Department; Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office; Los Alamos Police Department; New Mexico State Police; Davis-Monthan Air Force Base EOD Team; Fort Carson Army Base EOD Battalion; Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport Police; Riverside County Sheriff’s Office from California; and another U.S.Army EOD group.

 
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