EOD - DEFENCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, Issue 29
The evolution of the ROV
Peter Stephens, Former Class 1 Ammunition Technician British Army, highlights the development of bomb disposal from a distance.
During my 24 years' service as a bomb technician with the British Army, I saw operational Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) service in Northern Ireland, the UK mainland, Germany, Kosovo, Macedonia and Afghanistan. My career coincided with a time when EOD procedures were revolutionised – mainly in response to the threat in Northern Ireland – placing the UK at the forefront of the development of both techniques and equipment.
The introduction and development of Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) has probably been the single most influential factor in the evolution of bomb disposal techniques. They maximise the amount of work that the bomb technician can carry out from a distance, reducing the risk to life significantly. It has been over 30 years since innovators such as Winter 'Lofty' Pattinson MBE and his colleagues developed the first ROVs – initially for service in Northern Ireland. In doing so, they took a major step forward on the road to ensuring the bomb technician's task is made safer.
Inevitably, bomb making has also progressed and intelligence agencies agree that the threat of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) devices has increased. The current threat also involves a heightened incidence of Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) and suicide bombers. In the face of this escalating danger, the growing sophistication of ROVs allows us to continually minimise the risk to personnel as bomb technicians approach their tasks.
In almost every aspect, the ROV has made huge strides forward, one of the most striking being its operational range. Early ROVs at the start of the 1970s were steered by cables around 90 metres (100 yards) long and controlled by a handheld control box.
While this did allow some remote investigation and disruption to be carried out on the suspect package or vehicle, it inevitably imposed limitations on where the operation could be managed from.
Contrast this situation with that of today, when the newest ROVs can be operated from as far as 1.25 miles (2km) away from the incident. Not only is this an advantage in terms of distance, it also enables investigation and action to be carried out from a much wider choice of locations. Bomb technicians now have a strategic advantage as, previously, limitations in deployment of the ROV could increase the potential of bomb technicians themselves being targeted.
The latest ROVs enable us to almost completely clear a vehicle without risk to personnel. For example, we can remotely inspect the interior and underside of the vehicle. We can break windows and gain access to the boot. We can also deploy a variety of disruptors and make use of a wide range of sensors such as x-ray equipment and CBRN detectors.
During my first tour in Northern Ireland in 1986, the ROVs I experienced were controlled by cables. Models introduced soon after were equipped with more sophisticated radio control – a feature that is now standard, but with the option of reverting back to a fibre-optic cable link. However, developments over the past couple of years have seen the introduction of wireless technology.
For instance, the very latest ROVs can feature a distributed architecture with a digital bi-directional control system. This means bomb technicians can use a variety of networked sensors, such as a chemical agent detector or an electronic stethoscope, simultaneously. It is also possible to integrate new developments in sensor and RSP technology at a later date.
Operators can drive the vehicle with spread spectrum radio frequency telemetry from a PC-based control console at the Incident Control Point. As well as an increase in range, developments in communications have also allowed comprehensive investigation and action to be carried out from a safe distance. This is particularly useful in today's environment where any device could potentially involve a CBRN element.
Enhanced communications have also increased the flexibility and capability of ROVs. When CCTV cameras were first introduced to ROVs, it was a big step forward, but there were problems with poor picture quality and disruption. Now multiple cameras producing high quality pictures enable bomb technicians to view many different areas of a vehicle or situation.
Crucially, they also help us to control the ROV much more easily. Anyone who has attempted to manoeuvre an ROV through a door will appreciate just how helpful it is to have as many angles on the situation as possible.
New robotic technology such as hydraulic manipulators or 'claws' have also opened up more options when dealing with devices. They have greater dexterity, enabling us to open vehicle doors for example, and greater lifting capacities to remove suspect devices from a hide location. Modern ROVs have a good power to weight ratio, allowing them to lift items up to 80kg.
With early ROVs, stability and robustness were a problem, and their mobility over rough terrain was limited. In contrast, modern ROVs can be constructed of titanium, which makes them durable, lightweight and agile. Additional features such as torsion limited articulating back axles enable vehicles to climb high kerbs and steep steps or cross debris. Although tracked vehicles have been used for a number of years, the current preference is for multi-wheeled ROVs or combination wheel and track.
To deal with the threat of CBRN devices, some ROVs can now be environmentally sealed. It is a major advantage if the ROV can withstand CBRN wash downs as this extends its lifespan in the event of contamination.
The main drawback of most ROVs is their size and weight, which limit their sphere of operation and the ease with which they can be transported to a site. However, while large ROVs remain essential to overall EOD capability, smaller versions have been developed to operate in more confined spaces such as planes, trains or flats.
The portability of the smaller, mini-ROVs means they can actually be carried to situations and transported in the boot of a standard car. They are small enough to pass between aisles on a bus or plane, and the latest versions offer a similar range of features to full size ROVs. They can still deploy disruptors and feature grabs, cameras and sensors, albeit to a more limited extent. Mini-ROVs are also invaluable in siege or tactical situations where personnel are not allowed to approach – for instance, to deliver supplies to hostages.
The effectiveness of full size and mini-ROVs is recognised within the global EOD community and it is becoming common for teams to have both types in order to maintain the capability to respond to a wide range of IED threats.
However, at the end of the day, no matter what equipment is available, a successful outcome still ultimately relies upon the professional expertise of the human operator. No amount of technology can replace that – yet.