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Chemical robot ready for its in-theater debut

Jul 11, 2008
BY John Pennell

FORT RICHARDSON, Alaska (Army News Service, July 11, 2008) -- Coming soon to theaters: A robot destined for the junk pile after being replaced by a more current model gains new life and a new purpose - going into potentially contaminated areas so Soldiers don't need to risk their lives.

While it may sound like the basis for a new animated movie, this describes the robot system the 95th Chemical Company has been testing and training with since 2005. Now, thanks to that hard work, the system is set to be fielded to both the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters this fall.

The robot is the Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Unmanned Ground Vehicle, or CUGV for short. It is part of the CBRN Unmanned Ground Reconnaissance, or CUGR, concept.

The robot saw previous use with explosive ordnance disposal units around the Army, according to Herschel J. Deaton, CBRN programs technical staff for Concurrent Technologies Corporation, Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

"The CUGR (Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration) was not formed to develop new robots or detectors. Basically it was established to integrate detectors onto a robot for the purpose of helping the operational community determine if this provides military utility," Deaton explained.

"The EOD community has been working with this robot for many, many years," he said. "Now they've moved up (from iRobot Corporation's PackBot 500) to a Talon, or 510 series. So the Department of Defense decided to take the robots they're not using anymore and design a detection suite so we can give the Soldier something that can go downrange and detect instead of a Soldier having to get in a Level A suit.

"When they get into a Level A suit, they really only have 45 minutes to go downrange to do what they need to do, depending on how they breathe," Deaton said. "The robot will give you four hours downrange to be able to do all of the site characterizations and sampling that needs to happen."

Deaton said Level A suits are airtight. Soldiers wear self-contained breathing apparatus with a tank of air, much like a scuba diver, inside the suit. They are used in situations where contamination is possible, but the type of hazard is unknown.

The suits are hot, humid and bulky. They limit mobility, vision and dexterity and are generally all-around uncomfortable, Deaton said. The 45-minute time limit includes from the time the Soldier goes on oxygen, all movement to the location, the work done there, the trip out and an extended decontamination to remove any substances that may have been contacted. If a Soldier breathes faster than normal due to excitement or exertion, the time limit can be considerably shorter, Deaton added.

On their recent training mission in Valdez, the 95th Chemical Company Soldiers who entered the building were limited to 10 minutes of work time out of their 45 minutes.
Soldiers will still have to enter the contaminated area, Deaton said, but their time can be better used when they get in there.

The CUGV detects ammonia, chlorine, carbon monoxide, oxygen levels, lower explosive limits, volatile organic compounds, gamma radiation rate and dose rate, temperature and humidity, Deaton said. It will also carry the new Lightweight Chemical Detector, which will replace the Improved Chemical Agent Monitor, to detect nerve and blister agents.

Besides just finding contaminated areas and deciphering the level of danger, the robot can also mark the areas for further sampling and investigation or decontamination, explained Capt. Julia Dorans, 95th Chemical Company commander.

"It can go in and mark, so you don't even have to send a reconnaissance team in suits," she said. "You can send the CUGR in, and the CUGR does the marking, and then the sampling team goes in right after that. There's less risk of human life or limb."

The lower risk factor is a big selling point for the system, said 1st Lt. Kathleen Bercume, platoon leader for the reconnaissance platoon.

"You send the robot in, and if that blows up, you just order another part instead of losing a Soldier," Bercume said..

The robot also allows the team to stay aware of what's happening inside the contaminated area.

"The robot itself also has a versatile camera system, which provides the operator a good degree of situational awareness," Deaton said.

Deaton said what the camera sees can also be taped from the operational control unit and relayed to higher level commanders for planning and decision making. The robotic arm can be used to open doors and position the camera or detectors for specific areas of interest or to put the robot back on its track if it happens to fall over.

"But the robot can't take a sample; it can't pick up a sample of water, ground or vegetation," Deaton said.

What the robot can do is a site characterization - a map of the area showing exact locations of contamination and types encountered. This allows the Soldiers entering the contaminated area to dress in a preventive posture on a level matching the hazard. Also, with the mapping already done, the time they would use searching is cut to an absolute minimum.

"Once the team does the site characterization, they know exactly the spots they have to go," Deaton said. "The robot's already been through there, so he's already looked for any IEDs (improvised explosive devices) or tripwires. So now the Soldier can get in his Level A suit and instead of spending 45 minutes trying to figure out where to go, he can go directly to the site where he needs to take the sample."

The Soldiers might not even have to don the Level A suit, thanks to the CUGV team's work.

"Level A is for the unknown," Deaton explained. If the Soldiers entering the building already know what they're dealing with, courtesy of the CUGV team, they may be able to dress down to the threat and go in lesser levels of protection.

Dorans said the company's use of Level A suits is pretty much a moot point based on the unit's on-hand equipment.

"We're not designed to be able to operate in those suits for an extended period of time, because we're not trained to," she explained. "We're getting the training, but we don't have the equipment organic to the company."

The training for the 95th was conducted in two phases, Deaton said. The CUGV engineers provided technical training while the operational managers taught the Soldiers how to put the system to use.

"The ACTD will be finished this September, and the units will be ready for fielding," Deaton said.

"The process of testing and training done by the 95th Chemical Company here has laid the groundwork for the tactics, techniques and procedures the rest of the Army will use with the system.

The TTPs are already being taught at the (U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear ) School at Fort Leonard Wood, where each Soldier gets a familiarization with the system.

"The training has been going good, and the Soldiers have been giving ideas of how to make the system work better," Deaton said. "So we've enhanced the TTPS so they work for the Soldiers at the lowest level."

Part of the process was figuring out when to best use the robot.

"This robot is used specifically for point recon," Bercume explained. She said the platoon could do area recon with other vehicles. "We can cover a huge area, and then if we find contamination around a building or around a general area, we can send the robot in without sending personnel in. We're using it for a room, or in an urban area. It does an awesome job there.

"What we're deciding is exactly where to use it because our platoon has so many different (Mission Essential Task List) tasks," Bercume continued. "Point recon is one mission area, but we also have area and route reconnaissance. We can't use it on those missions, but we can use it when we find point contamination."

Both officers said Soldier input was vital to developing the TTPs.

"It was very important, because they're the ones operating it," Bercume said. She said she goes over training with the operators to determine what they like and don't like about the system, then forwards it through Deaton to the people working on the next generation machine.

"The 95th was very important and strategic in the fact that they had to develop TTPs the Soldiers could use and understand, because the system is being fielded at a quick rate and when it's fielded, the Soldiers have to be able to take it and use it," he said. "If the Soldier just gets the system and has no 'instruction manual' to work from, they're going to be lost. The past three years of ACTD has been very important to the fielding that's getting ready to happen probably the first quarter of FY 09. Hands down they've done a great job."

Dorans said the testing and training has been fulfilling for the unit, but sometimes frustrating as they suggested changes to the system but didn't get to see the changes on their robots.

"I really hope that the information we provided back to the contractors, that they made those improvements," she said. "Unfortunately we haven't been able to see the newer and improved versions as they've come out, because I know that as we provided feedback, they made adjustments.

"For example, the wires that are exposed on the arm sometimes get tangled up in things and just gets in the way," she explained. "We suggested they enclose them. So in the newer version which is due out, they will be enclosed, but our Soldiers won't be able to see how that works out.

"I kind of wish we'd been able to do a little more testing on it," she continued. "I hope the testing and feedback the Soldiers provided has been enough for the contractors to come up with something that is usable, viable and will be used in theater, because I think it could be a good asset if it's used properly."

The 95th will surrender their CUGV's in December and will not receive the new version.

"It's not something they're planning to field as an organic system to units right now," Dorans explained. "It's something they're fielding to deployed units because, obviously, they have priority."

(John Pennell serves as command information officer for U.S. Army Alaska.)

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