Why making bomb-disposal robots is a great conversation starter

29 May 2020

Dr Julie Behan, R&D director at Reamda. Image: Julie Behan

Dr Julie Behan of Kerry-based Reamda is helping build robots that can be sent out to tackle some of the most dangerous situations, such as bomb disposal.

In the middle of the picturesque landscape of Kerry, the last things you might expect to come across are some large robots. Yet thanks to a company called Reamda, based in Tralee, the county is home to some of the world’s most technologically advanced explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) machines.

“You would never think you’d have things like this in Ireland,” said Dr Julie Behan, the R&D director at Reamda. “We have a low profile in Tralee, so when people see the army trucks coming down the road, people often wonder what’s going on.

Kerry SciTech, for example, has been great for promoting Kerry because we do have trouble getting talent here.”

Behan is a graduate in electronic engineering from the University of Limerick, who developed a love for robotics during her PhD. With a focus on robots that could interact with the public, she developed a device designed to assist people in a library.

Speaking with Siliconrepublic.com, she said that tinkering with machines has been a passion of hers from a young age. “My grandmother would get me a Lego Technic set every Christmas, and I would love putting them all together,” she said.

Fast forward to now, Behan is still designing robots with the aim of assisting humans. However, unlike a robot such as Stevie designed with human-like, friendly features for use in the home, the robots Behan works on are tough, powerful machines capable of keeping humans out of harm’s way.

“When people ask what you do for a living, I say I make bomb-disposal robots. It’s a great conversation starter,” she said.

Julie Behan and the Reamda team delivering the Reacher robot to the Irish Defence Forces, with the robot in the foreground.

Dr Julie Behan (left) and the Reamda team delivering the Reacher robot to the Irish Defence Forces. Image: Reamda

Early robot pioneers

EOD machines are among some of the earliest pioneers in robotics, with the first examples responding to suspicious packages and unexploded bombs more than 40 years ago. This makes their design process significantly different from others in the field.

“It’s one of the toughest environments you can put robots in,” Behan said. “Surgery robots and things like that have much higher precision as well as refined manoeuvring, but they can break very easily. You have to make [EOD robots] last because you know what environment they go into.”

However, it isn’t just the robot that Behan and the rest of the Reamda team have to think of. Behind every robot – such as their latest creation ‘Reacher’ – there is a human operating it. In most cases, this is a member of the Irish Defence Forces, which the Kerry company works with on a regular basis as part of a “great partnership”, according to Behan.

Unlike the controlled space of a lab or a factory, an EOD robot operator can be thrown into situations that vary significantly from one scenario to the next. This brings its own challenges to robot design when people’s lives are potentially in the balance.

“If somebody is out late at night, it’s pouring rain and they’re after coming across a device, you have to make sure the robot is really intuitive to use,” Behan said.

“You have to have faith in your robot, what it can do and have confidence in your user ability in controlling it. So, we try to put in features that assist the operator, but we also have to make sure that it’s really easy to use.”

Easing stress with AI

Also, unlike some other areas of robotics, a human will always need to be involved in an EOD operation from start to finish. This is down to the sheer unpredictability of the task at hand.

But it doesn’t mean that AI is cut out of EOD entirely. As Behan explained, Reamda has put features in its robots designed to assist the operator, such as automatically picking up weapon parts or automatically changing a tool for the robot to use.

“It keeps the stress levels low for the operator,” she said. “You want to assist them wherever you can, so we try to take away some of the difficult manoeuvres that the robot can complete autonomously. Some of the user interface design is very, very important in this field.”

Similarly, while the exterior of modern EOD robots might not look too different from those a few decades ago, other technological developments have helped substantially improve their capabilities. Advances in radio mesh networking, for example, have allowed for much greater bandwidth to send several camera feeds over longer ranges.

The ‘marsupial’ robot

Behan is quite proud of one of Reamda’s latest advances in its Reacher robot. Like a kangaroo and its joey, Reacher has its own ‘marsupial’ robot that can be released from one of its drawers. This small robot can be sent to deal with an improvised explosive device under a car, for example, that the big robot can’t reach.

“We’re one of the first companies in the world to do that,” she said.

While Reamda does business internationally through a number of different channel partners – as well as working on several EU Horizon 2020 research projects – Behan said she and the team work predominantly here in Ireland.

“It’s incredible the stuff we can do in collaboration with the Irish Defence Forces,” she said.

“We say to some of our competitors that we can just go up the [Irish Defence Forces] to test something in their barracks. That’s invaluable to us. A lot of other countries can’t get that.”

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Updated 9.57am, 8 June 2020: This article was updated to include reference to Kerry SciTech.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic