By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 29, 2006; A01
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.
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.