Is it junk or a deadly bomb? The convoy stops and the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team is called forward. They send forward their unmanned ground vehicle (UGV). As it approaches the road obstruction, it is destroyed in a ball of flames by an improvised explosive device (IED) composed of wired artillery shells hidden in a refrigerator.
Now other explosions erupt from the left and right as the convoy trucks try to move. At over a million dollars each, with their V-shaped hulls the MRAPs can roll over mines, but an extremely lethal form of IED called explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) that look like coffee cans with concave copper bottoms, start to fire off. Semi-molten slugs of copper blast through the MRAPs 10-foot-high sides severely injuring or killing the soldiers inside. The EFPs are not buried on the road this time like typical IEDs, but instead are hung from trees, attached to lamp posts and buildings.
The impact is devastating and accurate as they are triggered by passive infrared sensors (modified porch lights sensors) which fire from 30 yards or more away. The $300 million in UGVs that the U.S. purchased in 2007 are ineffective against these new weapons for the simple reason that the UGVs cannot reach the EFPs to disarm them. We only have three UGVs with weapons on them in all of Iraq and those are not really working. They just cannot reach the EFPs.
By placing the EFPs up high, the insurgents counteract the military’s UGV strategy and expose $15 billion in MRAPS, and their crews, to death and destruction – all for less than a couple of hundred dollars a blast. By stopping a convoy with an IED decoy and then attacking its vehicles with EFPS, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and mortars in a complex attack, insurgents can cut off our main supply routes. MSR ‘A’ alone moves 70 percent of our supplies to Iraq.
Adapting Faster Is a Necessity
How can we win a war where, as The Washington Post put it, the Flintstones adapt faster than the Jetsons? There have been 81,000 IED attacks in Iraq alone in the last four-and-one-half years and IEDs account for the majority of our combat casualties. In 2006, despite the heavy use of robotics, bomb disposal teams had more casualties than any year except 1945. Robots save the lives of U.S. and coalition forces – without a doubt – but what else can be done when a bed sheet or bucket of paint thrown on a robot renders it blind and useless? The age of The Terminator has not arrived. The U.S. government says 5,000 unmanned ground vehicles have been fielded, but what is not said is that around two-thirds of them were modified toy radio-controlled cars that are obsolete or long since destroyed. Far less than 2,000 robots are actually running on a daily basis and most of those designs preceded the war and were designed to climb stairs, not quickly navigate rubble strewn streets.
Because UGVs cost about $140,000 each, only EOD teams get them and those are often rationed. Basic infantry, combat engineers and other less specialized troops will not get UGVs until they can be cost effectively mass produced. MRAP armored trucks cost over a million dollars each and $225,000 for armored Humvees, but IEDs may cost less than $150 and in Sadr City they pay orphans $3 per day to build them.
Spending five times more than the GDP of Iraq to occupy it, means financial attrition is a real concern. We have to adapt our strategy and tactics to the war at hand.
A New Generation of UGVs
Using a new generation of low cost, adaptable and robust UGVs for government and commercial customers by focusing on an aggressive price-performance criterion is in everyone’s best interests. Cost is critical because unless robotics drop substantially in price and become more versatile in performance, they will not be distributed to every group that requires them.
A country that can build a prototype Mustang fighter in six weeks and produce dozens of aircraft designs and tens of thousands of planes in WWII can certainly do better with today’s UGVs. A developmental timeline of no more than two years is a good place to start because one can design for a known threat. At Black-I Robotics, we are concentrating on a common robust chassis with adaptable mission modules. This is a way of getting economy of scale quickly. By designing ruggedness and cost effectiveness into the product from the outset, life-cycle costs can be held down. Moreover, by going from concept to deployment in less than two years, we can stay relevant and accurate in our forecasts for what the troops actually need. Having our procurement process more flexible, more adaptable to the war at hand, and as innovative as possible, is in everybody’s best interests.
One thing that the U.S. government is doing well is driving contractors to commit to common software interfaces and operator control boxes. Some contractors may not like this requirement, but open source software provides the benefit of allowing modules, such as arms and grippers, to be swapped quickly. This reduces programming time, increases interoperability and should ultimately make training troops easier.
With the proliferation in the last few years of small companies making specialty components such as stereo vision systems, mechanical arms, drive trains and radios, we may be approaching a point where small companies can do what they do best – quickly innovate – while larger companies integrate these components.
We at Black-I Robotics suggest that adding mass production to the requirement list should also be considered. At this late date in the war, few systems offer as much long-term and cost-effective potential as mass producible, robust UGVs. We can and must do better at fielding new varieties, quickly, cost effectively and in quantity.
As Agent Smith said in the movie The Matrix, “Never send a man to do a machine’s job.”
Brian Hart is President of Black-I Robotics. He can be contacted at or 978-703-1236.
About Black-I Robotics
Black-I Robotics was incorporated in 2006 though work began in early 2005. The founders of Black-I Robotics started the company due to their alarm at the slow rate of fielding robust and cost-effective robotic platforms which save lives of soldiers and innocent civilians. A founder, Brian Hart, started the company with business partners Richard Hart and Arthur Berube after Brian’s son, PFC John Daniel Hart, was killed in Iraq at the age of 20. Brian Hart: “We understand the full cost of war through our own deep personal loss of a beloved member of our family.”