[mashable] Police squads across the U.S. respond to more than 30,000 bomb-related incidents every year. Though many turn out to be hoaxes or false alarms, the immediacy of these situations highlights a need for small, deployable robotsthat can navigate all types of terrain and dismantle explosives.
David Heaven, a representative of the National Bomb Squad Commanders Advisory Board, based in Huntsville, Ala., said his organization has deemed small robots a high-acquisition priority for bomb squads throughout the country. Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security and several bomb squad commanders around the U.S. also told Mashable that there is a huge need for androids that can immediately deploy and deal with bomb threats.
"Small robots have the benefit of access to restricted spaces, rapid deployment for initial observation and for their ability to be carried in a backpack to remote sites," Heaven said.
Rapid deployment was the robotic feature that was needed most after the Boston Marathon blasts.Rapid deployment was the robotic feature that was needed most after the Boston Marathon blasts. The city's bomb squad had to be on the move with their SWAT team, but they had few devices they could put in a car or bag.
Sargent Lou DeRubeis, the bomb squad commander in Stamford, Conn., said he understands the need to be fast in his business.
"We say, get eyes and ears on something that looks suspicious as soon as possible," DeRubeis said. "That's what makes the smaller robots look very appealing."
In urban areas, bomb squads often need eyes and ears on situations in office buildings, where the weight of small robots comes into play.
"If I have to go on the 15th floor, carrying the robots I have now would be impossible," said Dan Walzak, bomb squad commander for Erie County, N.Y. Small androids can be strapped to an officer and walked upstairs or, as DeRubeis said, loaded onto an elevator, sent up and deployed one or two levels below the suspicious package.
These robots can dismantle some bombs, fit in tight spaces, open doors, smash windows, show what's happening via cameras and maneuver more easily than their large counterparts.
"The bigger robots certainly have zillions of uses," said Phil Mattsen, a standards director within the science and technology directorate at the Department of Homeland Security. "But when you're trying to manipulate in narrow spaces or smaller spaces, such as down the aisle of a bus…that requires your device to be considerably smaller."
It is perhaps best, though, when small and large robots work together.
DeRubeis was in such a situation a few months ago when his officers sent a small robot into a suspicious house through a smashed window. The android checked out the first floor, cleared it, then drove around to the front door and opened it so the larger robot could investigate. No need to blow the door down.
Sometimes small robots don't even need to move to be effective. Departments around the nation have tiny androids for the sole purpose of surveillance. They're fittingly called "baseball" and "dog bone" robots because of their shapes. Officers hurl them over walls or through windows, then check out the robot camera feed on monitors from a safe distance away.
Every bomb squad commander Mashable spoke to had at least one small robot, and all of them said they could use more.
"There are some robots we would like to have," said Dexter Nelson, chief spokesman for the Oklahoma City Police Department.
"We just don't have the funding to purchase them.""We just don't have the funding to purchase them."
Androids aren't cheap. Even one of Oklahoma City's smallest robots, which Nelson described as "a notebook on wheels," cost the department $36,000. A basic large robot cost the Stamford police department $130,000, according to DeRubeis, and its smallest one is only a little less than half that price.
All the officers said they got the majority of their robots through government grants, but those grants are hard to get. The only other option is to purchase an android with funds that could go toward another officer's pay, which they all said was not likely to happen.
"You ask your department to buy a $60,000 robot or even a $30,000 robot, and for most departments, that's close to a full year's salary for a guy," Walzak said.
It's an ironic conundrum, given that the ultimate purpose of bomb squad robots is to save the lives of those who use them.
"The last thing you want to do with something that looks suspicious is suit somebody up and get them down range to take a closer look at it," DeRubeis said.
"We would love to have more robot technology that we could use because it saves manpower," he said. "It saves human life, and you can accomplish so much in a short amount of time."