Thousands of innocent civilians are killed each year by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and explosive remnants of war (ERW) in dozens of countries with a legacy of conflict. Nations such as Cambodia struggle to remove millions of unexploded ordnance scattered across large swathes of territory. Clearing these volatile munitions is extremely dangerous and often beyond what some of the hardest-impacted countries can afford.
Golden West Humanitarian Foundation is an innovator in the global humanitarian mine action community, according to Cat Ramsey, a U.S. Department of State program manager for U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction programs in East Asia and the Pacific.
“We are proud to support their efforts to leverage advanced technology to support safe and sustainable ordnance destruction in developing countries. Since 2013, we have partnered with them in Cambodia on the Global Engineering Initiative, a project which includes partners such as Villanova University, MIT, and the Singapore University of Technology and Design,” Ramsey said in a written statement.
The project partners are developing a low-cost explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) robot they hope to build after a round of financing raised through Kickstarter later this year. It is hoped that the robot will provide safe disposal of dangerous landmines and unexploded ordnance in countries like Cambodia.
Voices interviewed Allen Tan, Director, Design Lab, at Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, and Garrett Clayton, Associate Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, at Villanova University about the project.
DB: How does this new technology help address the situation?
GC: The low-cost nature of our EOD robot — under U.S.$8,000 compared to $50,000-$100,000 for commercial alternatives – allows developing world governments and municipalities as well as NGOs to have a viable alternative to having someone directly manipulate potentially dangerous unexploded ordnance.
AT: Robotic EOD tools provide tactical options that greatly increase the safety of those trying to defuse IEDS. Current robotic platforms fail to meet the needs of developing nations, which leaves individuals shouldering great personal risk. Our robot endeavors to change that, which helps to make communities safer.
DB: What’s new about the technology?
GC: Our bot was conceived with the developing world in mind. Villanova University engineering faculty and students worked closely with Golden West’s EOD technicians and engineers to identify specifications that captured the necessary functionality of an EOD robot without requiring the bells and whistles that are standard on military-grade counterparts. We like to say that we are doing 80 percent of what the military robots do at 10 percent of the cost.
One of the enablers of this project is low-cost computing targets. We are using maker-movement technology (like Arduino and Raspberry Pi) and leveraging our academic robotics know-how to bring down cost while maintaining necessary functionality.
AT: This isn’t just about “cheaper”; it’s about a more appropriate tool for the job and the context. Current EOD robots were designed to be supported using the infrastructure and supply chain available in developed world/modern military environments. When we began this design process we looked at the task holistically, taking into account both the technical tasks the robot would need to perform and the environment in which it would “live”.
DB: How reliable is the ‘bot’?
GC: Extensive field testing has been ongoing with great success. We can reliably operate and communicate with the robot at a distance of greater than 100 meters.
AT: Reliability is a huge part of what makes something useful in a tactical environment. At present, the prototype does well, but as we look at production, we will design it to be ironclad.
DB: Who is developing it and how?
GC: The robot has been developed by senior design groups under my supervision in close collaboration with Allen Tan and John Wright at Golden West’s Phnom Penh Design Lab. It is also important to note the key contribution of Jordan Ermilio, the Director of Villanova Engineering Service Learning who facilitates many aspects of the international collaboration.
Development has been carried out through the senior design sequence at Villanova over the last three years. Through this process approximately 15 students (5 per year) have taken the robot from concept to mission-ready prototype. A subset of these students travel to Cambodia each year for a design review and field testing.
AT: This process has really been unique. The development has been done under a program funded by the U.S. Department of State, Office of Weapons Removal and Abetment, which aims to expose U.S. engineering students to technical problems in the field of humanitarian ordnance destruction (itself a component of conflict recovery and anti-arms proliferation efforts). This program partnered a U.S. charity, the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, with Villanova University. Multiple student teams engaged in the design process over a period of several years under the guidance of their professor and subject matter experts from Golden West.
DB: The robots are to be sold for under $10,000 apiece. Is that affordable for Cambodia? Or is the Kickstarter campaign intended to cover development and deployment?
AT: $10,000 is less than the cost of a pickup truck and certainly less than many other pieces of military equipment readily found in the developing world. The Kickstarter campaign will only cover the cost of setting up for production. In addition to direct purchase, we expect that these systems could also be a part of donor assistance to developing nation public safety efforts.
DB: What is the purpose and timing of the Kickstarter campaign. What are you looking for from the general public by way of support? What will their donations achieve?
AT: We are asking for support in gearing up for production. This will include modification to the prototype design for production and setting up the workshop. By taking this approach, we don’t need to recover the costs of production facility setup, thereby making the final product more affordable to the customer. We anticipate launching the campaign sometime in late summer. It’s also a great way for individual citizens to be a part of bringing a lifesaving technology into the world.
DB: What is the ultimate potential of this technology, specifically in terms of where else it might be deployed.
GC: In general, the robot could be deployed in any situation where a human might be in danger – for example in radioactive environments or during search and rescue in unsafe environments.
AT: What we are really doing here is looking at how accessible robotics have become and then looking at the developing world and asking; “why haven’t they benefited?” It’s true that robotics are often thought of as a tool for decreasing human labor inputs to lower costs (which is not a concern in low income countries), but there are also jobs, many involving public safety, where robots can prevent unnecessary risk to life. These are places where those interested in humanitarian robotics should look to make an impact.
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.