UAS & Robotics

Robots handle the risk, clearing hazards for Special Ops test range

Robotics clearing future test range

Team members working at Fort Bragg examine a Pan/Tilt/Zoom Thermal and Visible Imaging System.


With the rise of robotic technology, machines are increasingly doing dangerous jobs keeping humans out of harm’s way.  One recent such project involves the use of robotic construction equipment to clear obstacles, forestry and, most dangerously, unexploded ordnance, or UXOs, to prepare for a new live-fire test range at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Fort Bragg is the headquarters of Army Special Operations Command and the site of much of its testing and training. The new live-fire range, which costs upwards of $40 million, will be used for rotary wing aircraft bombing and target practice, according to an Army release.

“Attack helicopters need large areas to maneuver in and this [aerial gunnery range] gives them that distance and all the targets they need [to train],” said Wolf Amarack, Fort Bragg’s range control chief. “Once we have this range cleared of vegetation and construction completed, we will finally have the aerial gunnery training capabilities right here at Fort Bragg.”

Clearing test ranges of unexploded ordnance and possible contaminants has presented a challenge for the military.

“Concerns about possible soil and groundwater contamination from munitions residues, such as explosives and lead, and the dangers from disturbing or mishandling munitions that were fired but failed to detonate have hampered the DOD's efforts to transfer closed military bases to the public as required by law,” according to a RAND report on clearing UXOs from military instillations. “Although DOD spent nearly $7 billion cleaning up former installations, many sites are not suitable for reuse.”

RAND said UXOs can include small arms ammunition, mortars and tank-fired projectiles.

The Army’s robots are proving to be helpful in speeding up the cleanup. According to the Army release, the Army Engineering and Support Center at Huntsville, Ala., which has been leading the robotics effort at Fort Bragg, has been a leader in the development of robotics for this type of work dating back to 2005.

"Because of the potential risks associated with UXOs in the ground, removing the trees, shrubs and woody vines from the range target areas is a daunting task,” said Bob Selfridge, Huntsville Center chief geophysicist and robotics technical lead for the vegetation clearance program. “Our solution is to utilize remotely operated forestry mulchers, tree shears and feller bunchers to do the job."

One of the key benefits of the system, of course, is safety. "Manual removals methods are dangerous and expensive to implement and armored equipment can only protect the operator from fragmentation, but not the over pressure from larger munitions that could possibly explode during the cleanup operations,” said Spencer O'Neal, Huntsville Center vegetation clearance project manager for the Fort Bragg project. “Using the second generation remotely controlled heavy equipment to clear the dense vegetation covering the impact area here at this Fort Bragg range has been highly successful and is potentially saving lives.”

One of the most innovative aspects of the current project is mobility. What is termed the “brain kit,” which allows for safe remote operation away from the clearing and includes the steering, acceleration, breaking and hydraulic lift boom components can be mounted onto most heavy equipment in about an hour. Each of the robotics-equipped machines has multiple cameras that transmit images back to the mobile command centers, where operators instruct the machines on their next movements.

“You just lease the heavy machinery at the new site and attach the modular control kit onto the newly leased equipment. This provides an extraordinary cost savings to the project when transportation costs of these large machines are over $10,000 each,” said Charles Pregeant, lead engineer of the Huntsville Center team.    

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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