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Pentagon team seeks new ways to foil buried explosives

Robots, sensors needed for Afghanistan war

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A Pentagon agency has set up a team of experts to find ways to foil buried homemade explosives that increasingly are killing and maiming troops in Afghanistan.

The Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) said the new working group is looking at several counter-IED devices, including a "sacrificial robot" that could clear a footpath for "dismounted" Marines and Army soldiers.

"JIEDDO is also fielding several new airborne ... imaging systems that will greatly assist with identifying homemade explosives," said spokeswoman Irene Smith. "The dismounted IED threat to our forces is made possible by the widespread availability of HME [homemade explosives]. This is a key priority for JIEDDO."

Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, told The Washington Times earlier this month that the Taliban has changed tactics in recent months and focused on planting small IEDs around villages to strike approaching troops.

He said Marines with whom he spoke want a robot, like a weighed-down toy truck, that would trigger a pressure-activated IED in their path.

JIEDDO has issued an urgent appeal to private industry to come up with new devices as the war reaches the 10-year mark.

The solicitation states the Pentagon wants "proposals for the development of innovative capabilities to defeat IEDs employed against dismounted U.S. or coalition forces anywhere in the world, but especially in Afghanistan. JIEDDO is seeking counter-IED capabilities that can be rapidly developed, demonstrated, and deployed within 6 to 12 months from award."

JIEDDO said that since the IED's main charge is a homemade fertilizer base in a plastic or fabric container, industry must come up with a detection system that can discriminate.

"Due to the improvised nature of IEDs, they often have signature characteristics very similar to other buried objects that are not actual IED components," it said.

JIEDDO, which has spent billions of dollars on various sensors, jammers and robots, told contractors it is not altogether happy with sensors now in the field.

"Although these sensors are effective, they provide little standoff detection range, they false alarm frequently and the best of them require extensive training to use properly," it said. "JIEDDO is interested in solutions that with minimal operator training requirements, particularly those that provide greater standoff or reduced false alarms."

The robot, or unmanned ground vehicle, "will need to travel through the same terrain as a dismounted soldier, and have the same endurance," JIEDDO said.

Mr. Hunter, a Marine Corps Reserve officer who saw action in Iraq and Afghanistan, said this is precisely why troops need a robot to clear a path.

"It's good to see JIEDDO moving with a sense of urgency on this," he said. "And it's great to see JIEDDO reaching out to innovators in the industry. That's where some of the best ideas and technology originate.

"Incorporating some type of robot or remote-control vehicle to detect and even detonate IEDs is a simple and effective way of dealing with the problem. All that's needed is something that meets the right size and weight specifications. It doesn't have to have all the advanced gadgetry. Just something simple that does the job."

IEDs are the No. 1 killer of U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

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