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SAPBER: Robotic Bomb Disposal

In the never-ending war on violent crime, the pipe bomb is a vicious and oft-used weapon, often utilised by those who do not care as to the level of collateral damage they deal. It is an easy-to-assemble weapon that is tricky to disassemble, at least without it going off in your face. Worse, they are often found in caches, where the detonation of one triggers the others to detonate as well.

Robotic sniffers have been available for some time, to trundle on down to the suspected bomb and examine the site. However, whilst they can lift the bomb up, or trigger it, such robots have never been able to disarm the bombs safely, much less disarm them and preserve all evidence. That task has always taken a human bomb expert, and presents a risk to life and limb. A new bomb disposal robot is attempting to fill that gap, by interacting with the sniffer robot, and disarming the bomb itself from a safe distance.

Called SABPER, or Semi Autonomous Pipe Bomb End-cap Remover, the little robot about the size and shape of a household pressure-washer, is deceptively powerful. It has been designed to be as cheap as possible to replace should something go wrong, and at the same time to preserve every stage of the dismantling process for use in prosecution. It video-records every action it takes, and preserves every piece it removes for fingerprint dusting and further investigation.

When discussing the robot, it's creator, S&T Program Manager Christine Lee said: “From ten paces away, you might mistake the contraption for a pressure washer, but step closer and you'll find an ingenious device bristling with four video cameras, radios, a telescoping mast, cutting wheels, a twisting wrist, an electric motor, and a chain-driven gear, all powered by a pair of 12-volt batteries.”

In this image, SABPER is the small, dark robot on the right. On the left, an armed bomb-disposal robot is handing SABPER the pipe bomb to be disassembled.

Pipe bombs can be constructed from many different pipe materials, and filled with many different explosive materials. Making it even more challenging, they can also be constructed with shrapnel on the outside. SAPBER is designed to carefully disassemble the pipe bomb without disturbing the deadly explosive materials inside. Once the pipe bomb is dismantled, the filler explosive materials can then be emptied, and both materials and the pipe itself can be preserved as evidence. The SAPBER system is able to use these special techniques on a wide variety of pipes including straight steel, galvanized steel, copper, and PVC plumbing plastic.

The prototype and its remote-control software were developed by RE2 Inc., of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As an operator controls the device from a distance, SAPBER takes the pipe bomb from a bomb-disposal robot, disassembles it, empties the pipe, makes a video, and carefully preserves all of the evidence. The video is not even stored on the robot, but streams continually back to the operator where it is saved. So, the video is recovered as evidence, even if something catastrophic occurs to the robot itself.

The 140-pound (64-kg) two-wheeler is small enough to squeeze into a current bomb-squad truck while sharing space with a bomb-disposal robot. Once off the truck, SAPBER is towed into place by the other bomb disposal robot, which then extracts the bomb from it's original location, and brings it over to the dismantler for further work. Both robots are well away from any human onlookers at this point, but the two-stage approach means the bomb can be disassembled well away from other potential bombs. If a mistake is made, the rest of the cache won't go off.

The robot has a transfer tray specifically designed to take the pipe-bomb. The other robot (or if it is safe, a human operator) lays the pipe bomb onto this tray, and the robot does the rest. It is semi-autonomous, so it will do much of the work itself once it is told to start. This means the operator does not have to be someone trained in bomb defusing, in order for stellar results to be achieved.

When the pipe is opened, the material inside—powder, detonator, shrapnel, and all—fall into SAPBER's collection trough, to be studied later and used as evidence.

In May 2012, SAPBER underwent trials conducted by the S&T Bomb Squad Test Bed at the Army's Fort Meade. During these trials, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) fabricated "live" pipe bombs for the Baltimore County Police Department Bomb Squad to test in four different, operational scenarios and each operator had to control the semi-autonomous device remotely, using the tool's video feed. The system has also been tested using "live" explosives and has gone through an extensive evaluation by several bomb squads including the Allegheny County and Fairfax County Bomb Squads.

"To keep it affordable (currently around $12,000) and easy to maintain, RE2 Inc. designed and built the device from proven commercial parts that are mass-produced and easily replaced," says Lee.

So even if the robot is half-destroyed by an explosion, detach the parts that are useless and attach new ones: The robot can be restored to operating conditions without having to replace the whole thing. Similarly, robots that cease to operate can be broken down and used as spares for others, with a minimum of fuss.

Everything that S&T's First Responders Group (FRG/R-Tech) funds must appeal to cash-strapped, cost efficient responders. If SAPBER looks more like a boy's go-cart, and not a sleek racecar, that's no matter to them. Cost saving is a practice encouraged by S&T's First Responders Group (FRG), whose R-Tech program funded the robot's development. The final design was shown to the National Bomb Squad Commander's Advisory Board and municipal bomb squads, and it proved its mettle—at the conclusion of the user evaluation, two SAPBER prototypes were transferred to ATF to disarm the scores of pipe bombs its agents have confiscated.

This image from the Israeli defense forces, of a car bomb explosion involving just a half dozen pipebombs, illustrates the dire need for robots like SABPER. In this instance, the disarming of one pipe bomb went awry, and the explosion set off the rest.


Bomb Squad Commander Corporal Robert Conroy of the Baltimore County Police Department – Hazardous Devices Team says: "The most unique feature of the SAPBER is its simplicity and ease of use. Personally, I liked that the operating system was computer based and didn't require any extra hardware outside of a standard modem and Wi-Fi hotspot (included with the SAPBER). In addition, the ability of the SAPBER to remotely dismantle pipe bombs in various ways is very unique."


Taking the edge off a pipe bomb -- literally

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