At this rodeo, robots enter downed planes and explore fake radioactive disasters

At this rodeo, robots enter downed planes and explore fake radioactive disasters

Last week in the New Mexico desert, military and civilian bomb squads faced off at the 12th annual Robot Rodeo, which is a week of intense training organized by Sandia National Laboratories. To test their skills, bomb squads steered their bots to enter downed planes, explore faux-radioactive disaster sites, and climb flights of stairs.

“Everybody else is running away from the bomb, and these guys are going in,” says Jake Deuel, robotics manager at Sandia and coordinator of the rodeo. His goal is for the event to help bomb squads tackle real-world situations and learn what their robots can and cannot do. “We train these guys to come home safe,” he says.

Some of the crafted scenarios are designed to test the robot operators’ skills and problem-solving abilities. One exercise, for example, was based on the 1984 movie Red Dawn, where teenagers fight off invading forces in World War III. The competing robots had to go into a downed Phantom F-4 fighter jet to “retrieve the black box and some of the fancy electronics so that we can figure out what the enemy is doing,” Deuel says. Another exercise required bomb squads to work together to find the sources of an underground radiation leak and contain them.

“It’s not just like driving around remote-controlled cars. It’s complicated. There are broken wings and sharp objects, challenging areas you’ve got to get the robot in,” Deuel says. That’s why this kind of training is so key. The scenarios are “about robot manipulation and control, wrapped around a fun little story.”

The Verge spoke with Deuel about operating robots, alien blood collection, and why robot training is so important.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Walk me through what a Robot Rodeo looks like.

I usually have 10 to 12 teams show up, which means I usually need 10 to 12 different scenarios. Think of a scenario as a vignette. They typically only get 90 minutes. In each scenario, there’s a script that one of my evaluators would read to them. The bomb techs might ask some questions like, “Are we looking for six or seven of these items?” The evaluator may answer that question. Typically they’ll say, “We have no more information. You’ve got 90 minutes. Begin!” And then they’ve got to start solving the problem.

A robot explores an underground facility, searching for radiation at the 12th annual Robot Rodeo.
Photo: Sandia National Laboratories

Is it BYO-robot?

Instead of bringing your own bottle, you bring your own bot to the event. I’ll probably get the saying wrong, but it’s “train as you fight, fight as you train.” If I gave them something else or something different, that’s not the best way to get training value. It’s got to be your equipment — you know what it does, you know what it doesn’t do. So they’ll actually show up in their bomb truck, and these scenarios are usually geographically based around Sandia labs, which is on Kirtland Air Force Base here in Albuquerque. And so I’ll have some scenarios spread out so that the teams aren’t all seeing each other. I’ve got to find a location or something that looks like a burned-out building or a village or an underground, so you have to find a location to hold a scenario.

Video: Vince Gasparich/Sandia National Laboratories

Did I hear correctly in the video from last year’s Robot Rodeo that you’ve done an alien blood-collection scenario? Is there something Sandia knows that the rest of us don’t?

We like to build a scenario around the Men in Black movies. And when we did it, we had access to an old C-130 airplane fuselage. And so in that one, “Galaxy Air” — that’s the airline in the Men in Black movies — was transporting aliens, and these aliens were on life support. And we had a recirculating pump that you’d have in a party with a punch bowl pumping the liquid. So we had that set up with a bunch of red Kool-Aid representing the blood. One of the things they had to do was drive into the airplane fuselage, which was non-trivial getting up in there. They had a little plastic beaker that they had to pick up in their little robot gripper and not drop it and get it under this stream of dripping blood.

But then they also had to take a sample of something else. And then it’s like, “Oh wait, I’ve already got this beaker full of blood in my gripper, and I’m supposed to do something else.” It’s like, “You know what, shoot. I should have done the other task first and then gone over and picked up the beaker.” So, it might seem funny — and it was — but it’s really also training them to think about your operational sequence and to think it through. Don’t just get excited and start driving inside the airplane.

Video: Vince Gasparich/Sandia National Laboratories

Why is it important for bomb techs to practice driving their robots?

Driving your robot is a perishable skill — just like playing a sport or playing a video game. When you’re a kid and you’re playing a video game, it takes hours and hours of practice. But you put it down for weeks or a month, and then you try to pick it up again, and it’s like, “Okay, how do I do this? Where’s the switch? Is it this switch I flip up or flip down?” You’ve got to just keep practicing it, and the robot rodeo forces them to do that.

We did a scenario years ago where the basic objective of that scenario was just operator skill. They drove the robot, picked up a frisbee off the ground, hung it on a coat rack, drove across these spare tires with a mouse trap in the gripper without dropping it, all that kind of stuff. Imagine in front of you that there are lots of knobs and switches that control all the various joints of the robot and how you drive, and a joystick you can move for the camera, and a different one to fire the weapons systems. So imagine all that, and we put a Tupperware box on top of it with two holes to stick your hands in so that you couldn’t see your hands.

Oh boy, were they mad at me for that one. But at the end of it, they said, “That was a fantastic one because I realized I’ve got to get better at this.” Because in a real life-or-death situation, when they’re out there with that robot, you can’t be looking down at your hands. You have to have trained enough to just know instinctively where all the buttons or the knobs are so you’re focused on the task of disabling that device or rendering it safe or saving someone.

Video: Vince Gasparich/Sandia National Laboratories