Robot Bomb Squads Challenged at the Western National Robot Rodeo
Both robots and their controllers had to improvise solutions to compete various challenges at the event.
By Graham Templeton, Geek.com - Filed Aug 28, 2013

No, it doesn’t involve any tasseled cowboys (roboboys?) trying to stay seated on a bucking BigDog. Nor is there any prize for roping a speeding cheetah-bot in the shortest amount of time. Still, the annual Western National Robot Rodeo has plenty of events, and while they might be quite the family-friendly content you associate with rodeos, they’re fascinating nonetheless. It’s a veritable obstacle course for the world’s most harrowed roboticists: the world’s premiere robot bomb squads.

This year was the rodeo’s seventh year in operation, and this time it was Sandia National Laboratories‘ turn to host. They set up a varied array of challenges designed to test the versatility of the robots, and the creative problem solving skills of their controllers. The event was hosted in June, but video was only just released.

Despite testing primarily the robots, many challenges threw in obstacles for the humans as well. One disaster scenario saw actors pretending (with remarkable commitment) to be injured and screaming, perhaps running up to the police and military personnel and providing delays and emotional distractions from the task at hand. The robots themselves had to deal with everything from distant targets (one supposed bomb-bag was stuck at the top of a high fence) to loud rock music that could distract operators and interfere with their mode of sensing their environment.

Teams came from all over the country, including Air Force bomb squads, and state and local police departments. Each team was exposed to scenarios they likely had never seen before, and were forced to adapt under time constraints. Often challenges required the robots to perform actions for which they were not designed, to prove their ability to improvise solutions and make quick adjustments.

These sorts of training exercises are vital to both the operators and designers of these robots. Thought even goes into the back-stories to the scenarios, as with the fence operation in which one bomb is left abandoned in panic. Different teams, with different robots, will naturally excel in certain areas and struggle in others. This helps to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each design, hopefully leading to both a better understanding of which tool to use for a particular job, and how to make a robot that’s ready to deal with as many different situations as possible.

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