UPDATE — This story has been updated to add comment from L3Harris on its participation in the competition.
WASHINGTON — A year after the U.S. Army awarded a contract to build a heavy-duty robot able to dispose of bombs and other explosives, the Air Force is looking for its own system — and it wants to see what’s on the market before committing to purchasing what the Army buys.
The Air Force in October released a solicitation for a large explosive ordnance disposal robot, a commercial off-the-shelf system equipped with a maneuverable arm and a camera system that can function in all terrain types, environments and weather conditions.
An Air Force spokesman declined to confirm how many companies submitted bids for the program, which were due Nov. 20.
One competitor has already come forward: FLIR, which is set to rake in as much as $109 million building its Kobra robot for the Army’s Common Robotic System-Heavy program. The company began full-rate production of Kobra last month and is confident the Air Force will follow the Army’s example by choosing the same system.
“As the chosen provider for the Army’s Common Robotic System-Heavy (CRS-H) program, FLIR believes its extensively tested and proven unmanned ground system meets the Air Force needs in the large EOD robot category, while enabling commonality of equipment with other services’ EOD forces,” said Tom Frost, who runs FLIR’s unmanned ground systems business.
QinetiQ, which lost out to FLIR in the CRS-H competition, did not respond to a query about whether it had bid on the Air Force program.
An L3Harris spokesperson confirmed to Defense News that it had submitted its T7 EOD robot to the Air Force competition. L3Harris said it wanted to be chosen for the CRS-H program in 2018. The company unveiled the robot at the Association of the US Army’s annual conference in 2016 letting show attendees take a crack at operating the arm on the robot. The controller looks like the back end of a gun making it easy to hold, and is hooked to sensors that transfer information to the robotic arm on the T7.
The United Kingdom is a customer of the T7 for EOD missions.
At times, the Air Force has joined Army robot programs without needing to hold a competition. But in the case of larger EOD robots, the two services have differing requirements that have led the Air Force to seek out its own system instead of jumping into the CRS-H program, said S. Chase Cooper, a contracting officer who is managing the EOD robot solicitation on behalf of the Air Force’s 772nd Enterprise Sourcing Squadron.
“The major difference is that the Army’s mission is primarily to operate ‘outside the wire’ ” — that is, outside of a secure military installation — “where the Air Force’s mission is primarily ‘inside the wire.’ These are two entirely different environments,” he said in a statement to Defense News.
Cooper also pointed to additional considerations such as the size and weight of the system.
Most Air Force EOD missions occur after bombs or other improvised explosive devices are found at a base or installation. When that happens, teams load robots and other gear into a Base Response Vehicle or Bomb Squad Emergency Response Vehicle, drive out to the location of the explosive device, and safely dispose of the explosive. Whatever robot the Air Force chooses must be small enough to fit inside those vehicles, Cooper said. That includes passing through a 32-inch-wide door opening and parking into a space 91 inches long and 63 inches high.
The Air Force’s requirement for weight, which is set at a maximum of 1,000 pounds, is less stringent than the Army’s 700-pound limit. The Air Force also called for a system with a minimum 800-meter, line-of-sight radio range, and a 3-hour runtime that will allow it complete the majority of EOD missions.
Cooper noted that the Air Force’s decision to pursue an open competition does not preclude the FLIR robot from being chosen by the service.
“It is unknown at this time if that system would meet our requirements,” Cooper said. “Through our contracting process, we are evaluating all of the proposed large robot systems against the Air Force’s requirement so we can make sure the system we purchase is the best one for our airmen.”
The Air Force has a history of both collaborating with the Army on EOD robots and going its own way. For its medium-sized unmanned ground vehicle, the Air Force opted to use the Army’s existing contract under the Man Transportable Robotic System Increment II program for FLIR’s Centaur UGV, which is also being purchased by the Navy and Marine Corps.
But while QinetiQ beat out FLIR in the Army’s competition for CRS-Individual — a man-packable robot that is less than 25 pounds — the Air Force ended up pursuing a separate contract to meet its own unique needs for small unmanned ground vehicles.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.