Soldiers wanted a new tool for the iRobot 310-SUGV. There was not a proper tool to search improvised explosive devices (IEDs), Capt. Chad M. Juhlin, commander of the 53rd Ordnance Company, said in an Army statement. The current tools forced soldiers to get too close to an IED when disarming it.
U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command has a forward deployed engineering cell at Bagram Airfield ready to receive taskings such as the one from the 53rd. Engineers with the the RDECOM Field Assistance in Science and Technology-Center, or RFAST-C, built the first model of the batwing in January.
The first iteration featured a “collapsible hook that attaches to a telescoping pole for interrogating a site believed to contain explosives,” according to an Army release.
Engineers with RFAST-C followed that up with different variations of the batwing to give EODs options. Follow on iterations included modified batwings for “grabbing or cutting command wire, a rake for breaking up soil, and a spade for moving and digging up items,” according to the release.
The first 10 batwings have already been delivered to the 53rd Ordnance Company but other organizations have taken notice of the iRobot EOD tool. The Joint IED Defeat Organization ordered 670 original batwings for special operations and EOD units. Combined Joint Task Force Paladin Paladin requested another 50 iRobot “batwings” to go along with the ones shipped to the 53rd.
Scott Heim, an RDECOM mechanical engineer assigned to the Science and Technology Assistance Team at Bagram, is credited with setting up Juhlin with the right engineers at Bagram to make the batwing a reality. Heim said this is exactly why the RFAST-C was stationed at Bagram instead of depending solely on engineers back in the U.S.
“This example is just one of many projects that have been successful with FAST entities collaborating with users and developing requirements in a collective environment,” Heim said in a statement. “Working with the RFAST-C, we can provide rapid prototyping designs to facilitate an evaluation as to whether it meets the user’s needs or if a couple of modifications are needed before production is started.”
It took the team of engineers at Bagram only two weeks to develop the batwing and its follow on variations. Programs back in the U.S. associated with Big Army often takes years. It even takes the Rapid Equipping Force a few months to respond to operational requirements from combat commanders.
However, Nick Merrill, a mechanical engineer with RDECOM’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, said working with the soldiers on site sped up development.
“This project was unique in how we came up with the original prototype. Most projects, we sit down and brainstorm. For this one, they brought the robot in, we looked at it and how it grasps objects,” Merrill said in a statement. “Within 20 minutes of them being on-site, we had a quick, very rough prototype. Not very often does something get off the ground that quick.”