In dangerous places like Iraq and Afghanistan, robots help to save soldiers' lives and limbs by ferreting out hidden explosives. In return, the soldiers help put the robots back together after a rough day of bomb-sniffing.
One of the main places that fix-up work takes place is the Joint Robotics Repair Facility at Camp Victory in Baghdad. The U.S. Army describes the JRRF as an "all-volunteer workshop" where the goal is quick turnaround--the shop adheres to a four-hour turnaround standard for repairs. If a given robot can't be rebuilt that fast, the soldiers who brought it in will head back to the field with a comparable unit.
"We make it a point that no one leaves this facility without an actual working robot," Chuck Burns, JRRF shop manager, said in an Army report from the robot facility. "As long as we have a serial plate we can rebuild a robot. We can rebuild from just about anything (and) create a robot from mix and match parts."
With the U.S. presence in Iraq now in its fifth year, the number of robots has grown to counter the rising use of improvised explosive devices by insurgents and other local fighters. The robot repair program is now three years old, and includes a number of forward repair facilities as wells as the one at Camp Victory.
"The initial requirement was for 162 systems (bomb-detecting robots)" that would be used to visually inspect IEDs, facility manager Maj. Stephen Mufuka said in the Army report. "Now we have more than 4,000."
One of the robots singled out by soldiers for its abilities in finding, and sometimes detonating, IEDs is the Talon, made by Foster-Miller. That device scopes out suspicious areas with cameras, night-vision capabilities and a microphone, and can provide its operator with information such as the position of its arm and the grade of the ground on which it's maneuvering.
Qinetiq, the parent company of Foster-Miller, says that personnel at robot hospitals in Iraq repair more than 400 robots a week. All told, Qinetiq says, U.S. military personnel conduct more than 30,000 counter-IED missions per year in Iraq and Afghanistan. The need for more robots and repair parts prompted the Naval Air Warfare Training Systems Division last week to boost its contract with Foster-Miller from $63.9 million to $150 million.