The world of mechatronics has an unlikely hero. A bomb disposal robot became the delivery system for 1 pound of C4 explosive which killed the sniper in Dallas that shot 12 police officers.
Strange as it seems, the bomb disposal robot became a bomb delivery system. Is it a form of Improvised Explosive Device, as they call them when used in combat against American troops in parts of the Middle East? It depends on your definition.
Bomb disposal robots have been around for a while and have been adapted to a number of uses. In emergency situations, these rugged robots carry cameras into dangerous and unstable structures to allow experts to assess the situation. Robots have been used to carry sensors for detecting dangerous chemical vapors.
Mobility platforms for the robots are generally of the 2 parallel tracked variety. Many different drivetrains have been used and various teams continue to experiment with different mechanical arrangements to provide mobility in complex terrains. The Mars rover with 6 wheel drive and articulating wheels is an example of a more exotic solution to the mobility problem.
Tracks are very rugged and well understood because of the extensive use in military and off-road applications. This provides experience in the how these systems will survive in extreme situations. There is no steering mechanism to go wrong from damage because turning is the result of speeding up or slowing down one track versus the other. Control for this type of platform is relatively simple for a small embedded processor.
Small, efficient brushless servo motors with gear reducers provide an excellent source of power. The robot weight is low, so it doesn’t take a lot of battery payload to make the robot mobile. Somewhat like a radio-controlled car, these robots have a limited operating range. Range is a design parameter that can be defined by the engineer, more batteries, more range. The same for electric cars with the exception that the robot payload is very low compared to transporting humans.
The last few years have seen incredible innovations in mobility platforms of all kinds. Flying drones, tracked robots, 2 wheel mobility platforms like the Segway, are proliferating and people are experimenting with all kinds of bizarre variations. We have seen aerial drones that shoot guns, bomb disposal robots that can deliver bombs.
Is there an ethical challenge here? Have we found ourselves in the position of a municipal government killing an American citizen on our own home soil? The ethics of the Dallas case were clear and unequivocal to most people. Yet, with subtle changes in vocabulary, we can find ourselves fighting the classic definition of an IED wielded by law enforcement instead of an insurgent force.
Reality has proven to be stranger than fiction.