The team had just 90 minutes to use a high-tech robot to retrieve disarming instructions from a dead Russian pilot and disable a nuclear device before it was too late.
The pilot had ejected from a hijacked F-4 Phantom before it crashed, leaving behind the improvised nuclear device.
The clock was ticking and the stakes were high.
The Explosive Ordnance Disposal team from Kirtland Air Force Base’s 377th Air Base Wing team was competing against six other bomb squads from around the country in Sandia National Laboratories’ 12th annual Robot Rodeo, comprised of a variety of simulated situations such as the one described above.
The weeklong competition doubles as a free training opportunity for bomb squads from around the country.
“The feedback, year after year, is, ‘This is some of the best training we get,'” said Jake Deuel, the manager of Advanced Field Ops and Robotics at Sandia and coordinator of the rodeo.
Deuel said the event allows teams to use Sandia’s extensive resources they otherwise may not have access to in order to become better robot operators.
“Where would the State Police get access to a crashed F-4?” Deuel said.
Teams working on the crash challenge also had to use the robot to recover intel located in various parts of the aircraft, including an ammo box cheekily labeled, “Election Results.”
The robots had to be controlled from a distance using a small computer screen, as the team didn’t know how large the blast radius would be should things go awry.
It’s a difficult task, especially with no peripheral or 3-D vision. Deuel said it’s easy to lose track of the positions of the various parts of the robot.
“It can be stressful,” said Garth Pirtle of the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office, who was evaluating the exercise.
Robots sometimes serve as the first responders to a bomb threat to eliminate the need for a bomb technician wearing a blast suit to be sent in.
“If a robot blows up, a robot blows up and we can replace it,” said New Mexico State Police Sgt. Gabriel Luna.
Still, it’s a painful loss; the robots can cost up to $400,000.
As the Kirtland team worked on the “Red Dawn” challenge, Luna and his colleagues were using a high-pressure water cutter attached to one of their robots to cut outlined shapes into a sheet of aluminum, simulating cutting into the side of a car.
“The opportunities we get here at the Robot Rodeo, they’re really invaluable,” Luna said. “It’s training you can’t get anywhere else and we’re so lucky to be so close.”
Deuel said he and his team at Sandia use the rodeo as a learning experience, too.
“What we’re looking for is technology gaps,” he said. “We see the guys struggling on a task and our engineering brain will kick in and say, ‘You know what? I think we can solve that.'”
Besides the Kirtland, New Mexico State Police and the Doña Ana teams, the other organizations represented in this year’s competition included the Albuquerque and Farmington police departments, U.S. Marine Corps and the Montana Air National Guard’s 120th Explosive Ordnance Disposal.
The competition will conclude on Friday.
Deuel wouldn’t say whether the Kirtland team succeeded in defusing the bomb because the competition is ongoing, but he did say the team remained “competitive.”
But for Deuel, it was the opportunity for learning by all – not the results of the competition – that was the most valuable part of the event.
“If I don’t have to have a bomb tech get into a bomb suit because of something we did here at the Robot Rodeo, then I think I’ve won,” he said.