High-tech robots are finding their way from the U.S. military into the hands of emergency first responders across the country through a process developed by SpringBoard, a Juneau-based program funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.
By streamlining the process through which cutting-edge military technology can be transferred for civilian uses, the SpringBoard program is helping police and fire departments, HAZMAT teams and others to obtain robots so they can try them out and evaluate them before making purchase decisions.
SpringBoard is working with the U.S. Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command - Systems Center Pacific in San Diego (SSC Pacific), which has an inventory of about 50 robots available for loan to bomb squads, special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams, and other first responders who want to use them in training exercises.
Capt. Mike Carter, SSC Pacific's Project Officer for DoD Technology Outreach Centers, oversees a Robotic Systems Pool that offers first responders the opportunity to borrow a robot and learn how it functions before making a purchase decision.
SSC Pacific's RSP gives first responders access to robots that have seen action in Iraq, new models just off the production line, and even experimental systems for advanced technology development. Before making a purchase, bomb squads can borrow a model from the RSP to evaluate how well specific robotic capabilities meet their needs.
"They get to make a smart decision on how they spend their money," Carter said. "The whole idea was to provide essentially a free resource, (so borrowers do not pay to use the robots)."
The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas' Security Affairs helps support the program as part of a broader DoD effort to share defense technology with first responders.
Through the DoD Technology Outreach Centers, many other kinds of equipment have been made available to first responders in addition to robots. The inventory includes night vision devices, handheld language translators, personal chemical detectors, and personal decontamination kits.
"Large robot designs featuring the latest technological advances can cost up to $250,000," said Capt. Mike Kyle, bomb squad commander for the Ashland County Sheriff's Office in Ohio.
Kyle's department borrowed a Vanguard MK II robot from the RSP during the second half of 2009 to gain experience. The robot was equipped with a manipulator arm with wrist and claw camera as well as two-way audio.
Kyle said Ashland County's six-month loan allowed the bomb squad to put the machine through its paces. One training exercise required officers to direct the 130-pound robot up a flight of stairs to search school classrooms for a simulated improvised explosive device (IED).
"The main thing is that it allows a bomb squad that doesn't have a robot to get good hands-on experience with one," he said.
According to Kyle, robots also have broader applications for emergency response beyond bomb squad use, too. Hazmat disposal teams can use robots to examine chemical spills from remote locations. SWAT teams also rely on robots for surveillance and establishing communication with suspects holding hostages. Some robots can be equipped to deliver tear gas and other non-lethal weapons.
SSC Pacific's RSP continues to add to its inventory and expects to receive about 10 more robots in upcoming months, according to Carter. SSC Pacific recently added to its RSP two Segway-based robots that could be used for search-and-rescue operations.
SpringBoard - a program of the Juneau Economic Development Council - designed the process through which the RSP's robots can be loaned to communities' first responder agencies under Limited Purpose Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (LP CRADAs).
"Our role is to promote the RSP to first responders and to facilitate LP CRADA agreements. We help address any issues and make the loan process as smooth as possible, both for the first responders and for the RSP," said Brian Holst, JEDC executive director and SpringBoard program manager.
SpringBoard is a sponsor and participant in this week's 2010 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation at the Dena'ina Center in Anchorage.
Larry West is communications specialist for the Juneau Economic Development Council. He drew some quotes for this article from the February 2010 issue of "R-Tech: Newsletter of the First Responder Technologies Program."