Meet the new bomb squad member
April 27, 2005
MINDEN – It isn’t easy navigating a robot using a video monitor and a joystick, much less picking up a 60-mm mortar shell and placing it back down … gently.
Without depth perception, every move requires a little more care, switching back and forth from one view to another until the shell is safely down and it’s time to open the claws and back away.
All that video game time pays off when people’s lives are at stake.
Members of the Tahoe Douglas Bomb Squad are practicing with their new Mini Andros robot, purchased with the help of a $79,366 grant from the federal Homeland Security Act.
Bomb technicians drew stares from passing motorists Friday as they put the robot through its paces behind the Emergency Dispatch Center on Esmeralda Avenue in Minden.
Tahoe Douglas Bomb Squad Hazardous Devices Technician Jim Antti described the device, which fits in the back of the bomb van.
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It weighs 220 pounds and a single person should be able to put it to work.
The robot was built by Northrop Grumman and is similar to those used in Iraq for dangerous work.
Emergency Management Technician Harry Raub wrote the grant for the robot and got to drive it around as robot driving instructor Jon Hayes provided instructions.
Controlled from a panel bristling with joy sticks and toggle switches, operators get a robot’s-eye view through three cameras.
The main camera rotates 360 degrees and provides high-quality color video. A drive camera sits between the treads and allows the operator to see obstacles directly ahead. A gun camera is mounted above the manipulator arm, allowing the operator to draw a bead on an object for grabbing or target the disrupter, basically a 12-gauge barrel that can fire anything from a water charge to a solid aluminum shell.
Buying the robot was the easy part. There is a nine-month waiting list for the robots, which are being used for bomb work overseas.
It arrived on April 16 and was uncrated in time for training on April 21. Friday’s demonstration in Minden was attended by firefighters and reporters.
Antti said operating the manipulator, the robot’s claw arm, is the real trick.
“We were picking up a bottle to get the feel of working with the manipulator,” he said. “At training we tried picking up eggs off the grass. Some survived, others were scrambled.”
The manipulator arm is the robot’s main equipment. It closes at up to 50 pounds per square inch.
“Any tool it can hold, it can utilize to some degree,” Antti said. Hayes managed to unzip Raub’s backpack using the manipulator. Once it got a zipper tag in its mandibles, the claw was able to drag the zipper along.
However, Antti pointed out, bomb technicians never enter any package the way it is designed to be opened.
A recent incident involving a man who tried to rob a Carson City bank by claiming he had a bomb showed the usefulness of the robot.
The Washoe County robot, the Mini Andros’ big brother, was used to examine the suspected bomb.
Bomb technicians can communicate with someone using a speaker and microphone attached to the device. Technicians spoke with the robbery suspect using the robot.
It is difficult to damage the robot just by driving it, but getting the wire caught in the wheels is one way to pull the plug. While the company makes a robot with a wireless feature, Antti said it is expensive and unreliable.
The 1,200-foot orange military-grade fiber optic cable plays out behind the robot on its way into danger.
“You’re at the mercy of radio waves,” he said. “Operating the robot that way is pretty herky jerky. With the fiber optic cable you get a cleaner picture and quicker response time. Reno has the radio control and they never use it.”
The robot has an automatic take up reel to keep it from running over its cable. The 24-volt battery lasts for up to three hours of constant use.
The robot comes with attachments for X-raying packages and opening car doors.