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Robot rodeo: Remote-control bomb squads compete at Sandia labs

"The only time we get to simulate the level of complexity that we face in real life is at the Robot Rodeo," said Carlos Gallegos, a police sergeant in Albuquerque.

By Brooks Hays
Robot rodeo: Remote-control bomb squads compete at Sandia labs
A robot takes on a civilian rescue operation at the Robot Rodeo. Photo by Randy Montoya/Sandia

ALBUQUERQUE, May 14 (UPI) -- Both civilian and military bomb squad teams gathered with their robot companions in New Mexico this week to compete in the Western National Robot Rodeo and Capability Exercise at Sandia National Laboratories.

The five-day event, which began Monday, sees teams attempting to defuse perilous situations with the assistance of remote-controlled robots. The competition is real but friendly, just as much about practice as it as about winning. It's a chance to replicate emergency scenarios without the stakes of real life.

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"Our underlying goal is that we want to make good robot operators into great robot operators," Jake Deuel, a competition coordinator at Sandia, said in a press release. "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."

For the first time since the rodeo began, the competition featured unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones -- a technology that David Novick, a pilot and robotics engineer at Sandia, says is a game-changer.

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"It's a stable, highly intelligent vehicle with controls similar to an airplane," Novick said. "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."

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Scenarios change each year, and competition organizers take pride in increasing the level of complexity each spring. They say the challenge keeps the teams coming back.

In the past, teams have been tasked with disarming airplane bombs, disabling suicide bombers, navigating smoke-filled buildings, rescuing first responders and more.

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As Carlos Gallegos, a police sergeant in Albuquerque, put it: "The only time we get to simulate the level of complexity that we face in real life is at the Robot Rodeo."

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