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Bots on The Ground

Staff Sgt. James Craven (background) and Sgt. Domonic Amaral run tests on two Talon 3Bs at a base in Tikrit, Iraq. The Talon 3B is one of several robots used by explosive ordnance disposal units in search of improvised explosive devices.
Staff Sgt. James Craven (background) and Sgt. Domonic Amaral run tests on two Talon 3Bs at a base in Tikrit, Iraq. The Talon 3B is one of several robots used by explosive ordnance disposal units in search of improvised explosive devices. (By Staff Sgt. James Kokotek -- Robotic Systems Joint Project Office)

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Ted Bogosh recalls one day in Camp Victory, near Baghdad, when he was a Marine master sergeant running the robot repair shop.

That day, an explosive ordnance disposal technician walked through his door. The EODs, as they are known, are the people who -- with their robots -- are charged with disabling Iraq's most virulent scourge, the roadside improvised explosive device. In this fellow's hands was a small box. It contained the remains of his robot. He had named it Scooby-Doo.

"There wasn't a whole lot left of Scooby," Bogosh says. The biggest piece was its 3-by-3-by-4-inch head, containing its video camera. On the side had been painted "its battle list, its track record. This had been a really great robot."

The veteran explosives technician looming over Bogosh was visibly upset. He insisted he did not want a new robot. He wanted Scooby-Doo back.

"Sometimes they get a little emotional over it," Bogosh says. "Like having a pet dog. It attacks the IEDs, comes back, and attacks again. It becomes part of the team, gets a name. They get upset when anything happens to one of the team. They identify with the little robot quickly. They count on it a lot in a mission."

The bots even show elements of "personality," Bogosh says. "Every robot has its own little quirks. You sort of get used to them. Sometimes you get a robot that comes in and it does a little dance, or a karate chop, instead of doing what it's supposed to do." The operators "talk about them a lot, about the robot doing its mission and getting everything accomplished." He remembers the time "one of the robots happened to get its tracks destroyed while doing a mission." The operators "duct-taped them back on, finished the mission and then brought the robot back" to a hero's welcome.

Near the Tigris River, operators even have been known to take their bot fishing. They put a fishing rod in its claw and retire back to the shade, leaving the robot in the sun.

Of the fish, Bogosh says, "Not sure if we ever caught one or not."

'Sort of Alive'

What do you mean "robot"?

Does a machine have to declare independence from its humans to qualify? In 2005, four bots competing in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge successfully traversed 132 miles of the Mojave Desert all by themselves.

Most, however, are more tightly connected to their humans.

The American military and paramilitary intelligence forces are legendarily skittish about fielding an intelligent weapon that's entirely autonomous. They like having a human in the decision-making loop. If anything goes wrong -- if a Boy Scout troop were to be mistaken for an al-Qaeda cell -- they want to have a person to blame. They hate explaining that the robot had a glitch in its algorithm.


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