U.S.-based scientists say a relatively inexpensive robot designed to retrieve explosive devices could be ready to use in Cambodia within a year, while another robot meant to make demining work more efficient is in the works.
The potential of the robots—being developed by Villanova University in Pennsylvania and the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, an American demining NGO, with funding from the U.S. State Department —was discussed yesterday at the inaugural Conference on Robotics in Cambodia, held at the Ministry of Education.
While commercial explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) robots have existed for many years and are used around the world, they remain financially out of reach in Cambodia.
“Unfortunately, the price tag for them is very high because of how sophisticated they are—running anywhere from $50,000 to $200,000,” said Michael Benson, a graduate student at Villanova working on the project.
The new prototype costs about $4,000 to make and uses off-the-shelf components that can be ordered online. For example, the robot uses wheels as opposed to the treads on most commercially available versions, because they are cheaper and easier to replace.
Though the country’s military is experienced in dealing with explosives, having done extensive demining work, the potential hazard involved in manual detonation remains high, said Allen Tan, general manager at Golden West.
“Instead of having to have a person go down and interact with this device, which is really dangerous for that person, you could send this robot down,” he said.
Garrett Clayton, associate professor at Villanova’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, said the inexpensive EOD robot could be ready within six months. Mr. Clayton is also working on a robot that has the potential to reduce the cost and time required to clear land of mines.
The current demining system employed in Cambodia, wherein mines are first detected and then retrieved by heavily armored de-miners, could be improved through the use of a robot, he said.
“It’s very dangerous to the human minefield clearance operators, and it’s expensive because of the time that it takes to actually do all of these things,” he said.
His team is exploring the potential to deploy robots to narrow down the area that needs to be cleared before humans are sent in, saving time, money and potentially lives.
“Robots are ideally suited to these types of tasks. You’re taking a human out of the field and putting a robot in its place,” he said.
A deminer working for the NGO Halo Trust was killed last month in Pursat province while inspecting cleared land. Though he had years of experience, the NGO explained, the man had failed to follow standard safety procedures.
Heng Ratana, director-general of the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC)—the government’s demining body—said that robots would also have to contend with Cambodia’s terrain.
“From my management experience as well as technical experience, we believe that manual direct operations by [an] operator is more successful and quicker,” he said, adding that robots lacked the vision of humans and could “get stuck” during the rainy season.