Press Release

Sandia software makes bomb ‘bots smarter

By SpaceRef Editor
July 24, 2001
Filed under ,

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have unveiled
a wheeled police robot that makes many of the “how to” decisions on its own, freeing
up its operator to make the more critical “what to do next” decisions during potentially
dangerous bomb-disablement or other law enforcement missions.

In collaboration with REMOTEC Inc. of Oak Ridge, Tenn., Sandia developed and
installed new software on a robot on loan from REMOTEC. The software automates
many of the robot’s movements while retaining the operator’s ability to command the
robot’s behaviors.

The software, called SMART, for Sandia Modular Architecture for Robotics and
Teleoperation, is expected to make police robots quicker, safer, easier to operate, and
capable of more behaviors. It also is expected to make available to on-scene
commanders a greater number of tools for responding to a wider variety of situations.

“Most importantly, it should minimize ‘time on target’ for human bomb techs,” says
Sandia project leader Phil Bennett.

The robot was unveiled during the International Association of Bomb Technicians and
Investigators annual in-service training conference last week in Albuquerque, which
drew some 700 law enforcement officers from around the world.

REMOTEC, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Corporation, is currently in the process
of licensing the use of the SMART software from Sandia.

“This is the first step in solidifying and expanding the relationship between REMOTEC
and Sandia,” says Mack Barber, REMOTEC President.

Difficult work under intense pressure Law enforcement agencies worldwide are
welcoming mobile robots into their special ops units to perform tasks that would
normally put an officer in danger. Robots outfitted with cameras, grippers, and other
sensors and tools are particularly useful during bomb threat responses because a
robot can enter a dangerous area, assess the situation, and handle explosive devices
while the human operator is safely behind a control panel hundreds of feet away.

But today’s police robots can be difficult to operate. A robot’s driver, often working
under the pressures of limited time and the threat of severe economic consequences
associated with mistakes, has to master control levers for each joint of a robotic arm,
as well as for a robot’s on-board grippers, cameras, and other tools. The operator has
to operate the arm while the camera views might be upside down and backwards.
Furthermore, the operator has difficulty judging distances through the cameras, which
provide limited depth-of-field information.

“Sometimes it’s like playing a video game with a seven-lever joystick sitting upside
down, with one eye closed, and with your boss looking over your shoulder,” says
Bennett. “Operators might think they’re about to bump an object but they’re really three
feet away. Or they don’t know if the robot will be able to fit between two cars or climb a
flight of stairs. Often they don’t accomplish these difficult tasks on the first try. The
pressure can be intense.”

A SMART-based robot with associated sensors and other tools could be
pre-programmed, using software control sequences that allow it to grip tool A or go
directly to point X rather than having individual movements controlled separately by the

“That would be useful, for instance, when you need to reach through a car window,
grab an object, and back out without whacking the door,” says Bennett. “It will free up
the human operator to think about what needs to happen and in what order which is
what humans do better than machines — rather than the monotonous and
sometimes confusing details of moving joints.”

Guarantees a stable system

A robotic system is more than just hardware, adds Bennett. When you assemble a
robotic system, you need a control system that integrates the hardware components
electronically in such a way that you have a stable, useful tool.

SMART’s patented control algorithms guarantee that a variety of components, perhaps
from different vendors, can be integrated into a single system and work correctly the
first time, says Bob Anderson, Sandia developer of the software. SMART has been
demonstrated on robots used by the Department of Energy for accident response and
hazardous waste cleanup.

“SMART overcomes obstacles to system stability in unstructured environments,” he
says. In addition, SMART’s “stackable” software modules — one for each robot
component or function — enables the rapid assembly of off-the-shelf equipment into a
working system.

“That’s what has us really excited,” says Bennett. “A sergeant can look at the
situations and problems officers are encountering in the field and essentially add this
tool or that behavior to the robot’s portfolio without the technical difficulties normally
associated with changes to the system.” It also will allow new tools to be integrated
into commercial robotic systems perhaps weeks after they are developed or
introduced, rather than months or years.

Sophisticated behaviors to come

Prior to incorporating SMART into REMOTEC’s Wolverine robot, Bennett worked with
the FBI to survey law enforcement robot operators across the country to determine
which robot tasks and problems officers encountered in the field most frequently.
Bennett also observed the challenges encountered by Albuquerque Police
Department bomb squad members as they practiced dealing with mock explosive
devices using their own REMOTEC robot.

The Wolverine now incorporates some of the most challenging and commonly
needed robotic tools and behaviors in police work, such as automatic tool changes,
tool placement, and bomb-disrupter aiming, as well as telerobotic straight-line
movement in all directions.

During a demonstration in March at the FBI Hazardous Devices School, the
SMART-modified Wolverine shaved minutes off typical bomb responses even with the
most skilled FBI robot operators. Bennett expects that REMOTEC and Sandia will
begin introducing new tools, sensors, and behaviors for additional law enforcement
needs soon. Possible new technologies could include path planning, machine vision,
proximity sensing, obstacle avoidance, visual targeting, reachability analysis, and
automatic calibration, which would enable a variety of new, sophisticated capabilities.

“We could add sensors and software to the robot that would, for instance, tell the
operator in advance whether or not the robot is going to be able to fit between two
parked cars, turn left, reach through a window, remove an object, and get out,” says
Bennett, “and then it could do all that automatically if the operator decides that’s the
right approach.”

Bennett hopes law enforcement agencies one day will be able to select and download
new behaviors or tool modules from a network or off of a CD-ROM and insert them
into their robots’ control systems.

Ultimately Bennett believes SMART-based mobile robots could be useful in such
areas as emergency response (to clean up a chemical spill, for instance), facility
security (to patrol perimeters or respond to an attack), nuclear reactor accident
response (to turn on or off a safety valve), combat engineering (to breach barriers, lay
razor wire, or remove or emplace an object and get out), urban warfare (to punch
access holes in walls or assist the injured), and space exploration (using
Earth-supervised robotic manipulators to repair satellites in space, for example).


REMOTEC, a unit of Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman, is a world leader in
ground robotic vehicles, having delivered more than 1,500 vehicles worldwide.
REMOTEC’s home page is located at

Sandia is a multiprogram Department of Energy laboratory, operated by a subsidiary
of Lockheed Martin Corporation. With facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore,
Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy,
environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.

Sandia media contact:

John German,, 505-844-5199

REMOTEC contact:

Jack Martin,, 410-765-4441

SpaceRef staff editor.