By Erica Fouche
Combined Joint Task Force Paladin
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan (2/8/13) - Members of the North Carolina National Guard’s 514th Military Police Company received a standard robot operator’s familiarization course last month by the Joint Robotic Repair Detachment (JRRD).
“We aren’t exactly sure when we’ll have the opportunity to use these robots in the field,” said Spc. Samuel Starling, “but my experiences have taught me that it’s always better to have the training and not use it than to need that knowledge and never have received it.”
The MP unit has been stationed at Bagram for almost six months, but recently received orders to learn how to operate the PackBot 510 FasTac robot for potential use on future missions.
The MPs are preparing to provide convoy security during retrograde missions that will entail moving supplies from various forward operating bases back to Bagram.
“We can already tell that the PackBots will allow us to search under and inside vehicles without us physically having to approach it, so that capability will definitely come in handy if it’s ever needed,” Starling said.
Bagram’s JRRD, or Robot Shop as it’s commonly known, pulls double duty as a counter-improvised explosive device(C-IED) training facility as well as one of five robot repair facilities in Afghanistan.
“Our technicians teach groups here at the shop at least twice a month,” said SFC Maria Guerra, Theatre PEO Ground Combat Systems NCOIC. “But if they can’t come to us, we’ll send the technicians out to their locations from one of the different shops to ensure our service members are utilizing the robots to their fullest capabilities.”
During the fighting season the Robot Shop can receive anywhere from 60 to 100 robots a week in need of repair and although that number drastically decreases to 20 robots a week in the off season, that is still a lot for their staff of 12. The majority of the repairs consist of replacing an arm or gripper part after being strained from picking up too much weight or replacing camera component. “All robot repair facilities in theater operate with the same capabilities, but Bagram’s shop serves as the main hub,” Guerra said. “We operate 24/7 because the missions are carried out around the clock.” Making themselves available at any time is just one of the many ways the Robotic technicians are supporting the warfighters.
In addition to the training, the JRRD engineers and technicians will sit down with the operators after missions to gather feedback and recommendations that ultimately allow the robots to better support the C-IED missions. “We can do a lot here in the shop, but if it’s out of our realm, we’re quick to contact the different manufacturers and let them know what alterations should be made to their designs,” said Guerra. “We try to gather as much input as possible because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to improve our mission.”
As the 2014 withdrawal of NATO forces approaches and troop levels decrease, robotics use has been steadily rising. “During the first part of our tour the only people who used robots on their missions were EOD technicians,” Samuels said. “The robots themselves can be a part of any route clearing mission as much as any team member, dragging or lifting up to 100 pounds, but the robots are a lot easier to replace than a service member so we’re really excited to gain this capability.”