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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.)

In June, Green traveled to Fayetteville, N.C., near Fort Bragg, where he lectured contractors ranging from industry novices to titans like General Dynamics on the complexity of the problem.

"We are accepting all ideas and I would tell you I have seen quite a few that aren't worth five seconds' worth of review, but we take the time and we review every concept and technology that comes in the door," Green said. He said later that the office receives 20 to 30 ideas a week.

Concern about the bombs has migrated to U.S. law enforcement. EOD Technology Inc., which provides security in Iraq, is offering courses to state and federal law enforcement agencies on how to respond to roadside bombs. The company encountered the bombs in Iraq and "we're transferring these lessons for use in the homeland," chief executive Matt Kaye said.

The Pentagon has made some progress. The number of bombs detected before they detonated has increased, according to the Joint IED office. The office did not provide figures to back up that assertion.

Still, the number of attacks continues to rise and roadside bombs remain the deadliest weapon used against troops. There were 11,242 roadside bomb attacks through June of this year, compared with 5,607 in all of 2004 and 10,953 in all of 2005, according to U.S. Central Command. They are the leading cause of U.S. casualties, accounting for about 33 percent of deaths, according to the Brookings Institution.

Military officials would not discuss in detail the technology they have deployed so far, fearing that any information could give insurgents an edge. They also would not say how quickly any of the new technologies may be put into the field.

One new effort is to combine several signal jammers in a single device, protecting troops against a wider array of detonators. Competition for that program is expected to begin in the fall.

Much of the challenge, industry and military officials say, is detecting bombs with enough warning for soldiers to stay out of range. A safe distance depends on the size and type of device, but with a roughly 100-pound high-grade explosive, a soldier would have to be perhaps 50 yards away to escape death and more than half a mile away to escape serious injury from the blast and bomb fragments, said Vilem Petr, assistant research professor at the Colorado School of Mines.

"But even then the pressure pulls could still cause you to break an arm or a rib," he said. In a convoy traveling 60 mph, even small improvements in detection can save lives.

The work of the task force has rekindled interest in roadside bombs among weapons makers who said the Pentagon rebuffed earlier proposals to see if advanced technology could help with the problem.

Chicago-based Boeing Co., the maker of the F-18 jet, began studying the matter in 2004 and approached the Pentagon with ideas that included putting sensors on unmanned drones and on the ground to hunt for explosives, said Patricia Stevens, manager of the company's IED Defeat Program.

"The customer was not quite ready for them yet. There was not a high level of confidence that we could field them as quickly as they wanted them," said Stevens, who has been in her job since mid-May. "The customer has evolved. They picked the low-lying fruit," she said. Now the Pentagon is open to more sophisticated solutions.

Timothy M. Swager, head of the chemistry department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the military's requirements will not be easy to meet.

Swager has spent years developing a system that can mimic a dog's sense of smell and thought he saw an application when the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency announced a search for ways to spot "chemical vapor signatures."

DARPA wanted a system that worked at a distance of about 400 meters, or roughly 437 yards.

"Even dogs can't do 400 meters," Swager said. A gust of wind in the wrong direction or residue from a recent blast could throw off the typical system, he said.

Swager offered one of the more exotic solutions suggested so far: pretreating road corridors with a chemical spray and using a laser to detect whether explosives are planted. He is researching ways to increase the sensitivity of his system to include other chemical vapors, including the components of C4 plastic explosive.

"I am hoping that my expertise can play a role in solving part of that problem," he said.

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