Fighting Roadside Bombs: Low-Tech, High-Tech, Toy Box

AMTI's remote-controlled bomb-detecting device.
AMTI's remote-controlled bomb-detecting device. (Applied Marine Technology Inc.)

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By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 29, 2006

Robert Pervere's fight against insurgents in Iraq started with an Emaxx monster truck from Debbie's RC World Inc. in Chesapeake, Va., a $335 toy that he turned into a weapon for U.S. troops against roadside bombs. The 24-year-old engineer replaced about 80 percent of the toy's plastic parts with aluminum, fastened two small surveillance cameras to the top and made room for an explosive that could blow up suspicious objects from hundreds of feet away.

"I get paid to play with [radio control] cars," said Pervere, who helped build the prototype for Applied Marine Technology Inc., a Virginia-based defense contractor that has said it expects to begin receiving military orders in September. "This has been a very rewarding project, working on a tool that's going to be out the door saving lives shortly."

After more than three years of war in Iraq, roadside bombs remain the deadliest single threat to U.S. troops, and countering them has emerged as one of the chief technological problems of the conflict. The Pentagon has spent tens of millions of dollars on the most obvious fixes -- adding armor to vehicles and deploying jammers to block radio signals used to explode the devices -- only to see the insurgents develop larger, better-concealed and more complicated explosives triggered by cellphones, garage-door openers, pressure hoses and other methods. Soldiers have even developed solutions of their own: Many Humvees in Iraq are outfitted with metal devices the size of a hockey stick that can catch tripwires or detect heat-sensitive triggers on roadside bombs.

Now, a Pentagon agency with a $3.3 billion budget and a staff of 300 has a mandate to focus the defense industry on the problem. The undertaking has attracted not only the country's top weapons makers but also dozens of small businesses like AMTI, all pitching a science-fiction gallery of possible solutions.

Lockheed Martin Corp. has established a corporate team with $22 million in internal funding, according to documents reviewed by The Washington Post, that is looking for "best of breed" technology, including ways to study attack patterns. International Business Machines Corp. has a system it says will create a digital image of often-traveled roads and alert soldiers to changes that could indicate bombs hidden in trash, rocks or animal carcasses.

General Dynamics Corp. is pitching a laser-based system adapted from Israeli technology that it says could burn away trash often used to conceal bombs and disable the devices. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is studying whether there is a way to sniff out bombs with electronic polymers that mimic a dog's ability to smell. Octatron Inc. of St. Petersburg, Fla., is touting a low-tech approach: -- a 14-foot, 5-pound high-strength pole that the company says soldiers can use to place explosives next to suspected bombs from a distance.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has a toy car of its own. After hearing complaints from soldiers that robots operated by wireless controllers were unreliable and subject to radio interference, Livermore came up with one attached to a 1,000-foot tether.

"This may not be super-high science, but it seems to be useful," Milton Finger, a senior scientist at Livermore, said of the lab's $200,000 research project. "It sounds trite that we're using toys, but it's more than that."

The defense industry's response to the roadside bomb problem mirrors in some ways the response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with many companies, such as Lockheed and Northrop Grumman Corp., establishing internal units to go after the market.

So far the threat from the bombs is outrunning the technical creativity of U.S. industry, and the Pentagon now views the bombs as a long-term problem. The search, Pentagon officials say, is not so much for a silver-bullet solution as for a wider set of tools that troops can use.

Sometimes "it takes us longer to do the counter measures than . . . it takes them to evolve to a new threat," said Marine Col. Brian Green, acting technical director of the new agency, the Joint IED Defeat Organization. IED stands for improvised explosive device.

Officials with the task force visited Paris and London last month to study technology under development by foreign vendors, and they are planning an industry conference in Washington in September. The office's Emerging Capabilities Cell met with several Washington area companies in May and June, an agency spokesman said.


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