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Experts Duke it out at Sandia Labs Western National Robot Rodeo and Capability Exercise

Bomb squads from across the country saddled up their robots and are duking it out at the ninth annual Western National Robot Rodeo and Capability Exercise at Sandia National Laboratories. The five-day event offers a challenging platform for civilian and military bomb squad teams to practice defusing dangerous situations with robots’ help.

A bomb disposal robot removes a suspicious package in a training operation at Sandia National Laboratories. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

The rodeo, which began Monday, is designed with elaborate props to model the atmosphere of real-life emergencies in a low-risk, competitive environment. Robots are life-saving tools for the nation’s hazardous device teams, providing a buffer between danger and first responders.

“Our underlying goal is that we want to make good robot operators into great robot operators,” said Jake Deuel, a Robot Rodeo coordinator and Sandia manager. “We design problems and scenarios that take our state and local bomb squad teams way outside their comfort zones, outside the known techniques and procedures to see how they can handle it.”

UAVs introduced at Robot Rodeo

This year, Sandia is introducing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into the competition. Sandia’s David Novick, a pilot and robotics engineer, will be flying the UAVs at the event.

Sandia's Robot Rodeo showcases UAV technology

“It’s exciting to be able to show off a new technology to this group,” Novick said. “This technology is a game changer. It’s a stable, highly intelligent vehicle with controls similar to an airplane. Emergency responders can use these small, portable vehicles to get a bird’s eye view of a situation to help them get out of a tight spot.”

Scenarios at the rodeo change every year and grow in difficulty, which brings competitors back. The event prepares officers for the types of situations they may face on the job.

“The only time we get to simulate the level of complexity that we face in real life is at the Robot Rodeo,” said Albuquerque Police Sgt. Carlos Gallegos. “Robots are saving officers’ lives and have been critical to our SWAT teams.” Past events in the competition have included managing suicide bombers, operating in smoke-filled buildings, responding to roadside bombs, rescuing first responders and removing bombs from inside an aircraft.

Sandia partners with Los Alamos National Laboratory on the annual event, which lets nine teams practice emergency scenarios where robots are life-saving tools.

Teams scheduled to participate this year include the Albuquerque Police Department, Kirtland Air Force Base Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team, Holloman Air Force Base Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team, Los Alamos Police Department, Doña Ana County Sherriff’s Office, Riverside County Sheriff’s Office from California, two U.S. Army Teams from Fort Carson, Colorado, and a team from the British army.

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