Correction: A previous headline misidentified the role of the T7 robot. The platform is used to dispose of and detonate bombs.
LONDON — L3Harris Technologies is providing robots to the U.S. Air Force to replace the service’s aging explosive ordnance disposal systems.
The award, announced by the company on Tuesday, includes a 10-year indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract worth $85 million to build up to 170 of its T7 robots for the Air Force. In addition to the robots, the contract includes support, maintenance and training. Initial deliveries are expected in 2022.
L3 Technologies and Harris Corporation completed their merger in July 2019. The latter first displayed the T7 robot at the Association for the U.S. Army’s annual conference in 2016 in Washington, D.C. Since then, the British military has procured 122 systems under an Army program dubbed Project STARTER, with the last robot delivered this past spring.
The U.K. and U.S. military customers are receiving the same robotic core system, but the British order included several accessories, such as explosive ordnance disposal, or EOD, disruptors as well as distinct system mounts, said Paul Bosscher, senior scientist and chief engineer for L3Harris Technologies.
“The U.K. has a couple of other unique attachments that allow them to [perform missions such as] under-vehicle attacks,” Bosscher told Defense News on Thursday at the biennial DSEI technology conference in London.
The U.S. Air Force could opt in for more accessories further down the line, he noted. “The system is very flexible. It’s designed for ease of integrating payloads,” he said.
But at the moment, the goal is to field the core system as rapidly as possible, as the global supply chain for critical subsystems like cables and connectors remains backlogged across sectors since the start of the pandemic, Bosscher added.
Like its ally across the pond, the U.S. Air Force will likely use a portion of these T7 robots for training missions as well as on its domestic and international bases. The Air Force’s initial order was placed for 50 robots, out of the potential 170, Bosscher said.
The Air Force released a solicitation for a large, commercial off-the-shelf EOD robot in October. Other competitors included FLIR, which is building its Kobra robot for the U.S. Army’s Common Robotic System-Heavy program. L3Harris also pitched the T7 for that program.
The Army’s plans for its EOD system slightly differs from those of the Air Force, Bosscher said.
“If you hold up the requirements to each other, they don’t look very similar,” he said. “So even though it’s a big robot here, it’s a big robot [there], I think what you just saw was a different set of priorities coming through.”
For Bosscher, the key upgrade in the T7 for operators is the advanced sensor system that allows users to manipulate the robotic arm almost exactly like their own.
“The big thing is, it moves how I move; I feel what it feels,” he said.
That means system operators can be easily trained to use the robot and complete tasks more quickly, he noted. “For something like explosive ordnance disposal, that could be really important,” he said. “Every second counts.”
At the DSEI conference, the T7 robot demonstrator featured prominently at L3Harris’ booth, alongside its more compact “little brother,” the brand-new T4 medium-sized robot.
The T7, which weighs about 710 pounds, is designed to tackle larger missions such as neutralizing vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. The more compact T4 includes many of the same electronic systems as the T7, but weighs about 226 pounds and can be easily transported in the back of an SUV, Bosscher said.
He declined to comment on any ongoing or future campaigns for the T7 or the T4, only mentioning there are “opportunities for both of these systems.”
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.