When a man-made or a natural CBRNe incident occurs, particular attention needs to be given to the response after the ‘bang’. Though response plans may differ from organization to country to affected infrastructure, the recommended approach is: triage of persons and decontamination, in order to limit the effects of the CBRNe incident. Personal decontamination generally stops the agent from further harming the contaminated person, whereas the decontamination of infrastructure and equipment allow to reestablish the use of equipment or infrastructure. Those taking care of decontamination are first responders, with support from available technologies. The risk of secondary contamination, and possibly death, is extremely high during this decontamination process since the first responder enters the hot zone, even when wearing protective equipment. The current state of the art technologies in decontamination do not include automated decontamination to the extent they should. Only minor adaptation of currently available robots and other developments to current technologies are needed to reduce the number of first responders needed for the process. Since we have the technological capabilities to remove the first responder from the danger zone the question begs: Why are we not investing to support this technological advancement?
The current state of the art
As decontamination is a central element to CBRNe response, there has been a significant investment in knowledge resulting in state-of-the-art technology and mechanisms that have been developed to decontaminate as effectively as possible. The challenges in developing these technologies arise because only CBRNe not only comes in all shapes and sizes, but there are also important differences between material and skin decontamination. This means that there is no one technology (mechanical or chemical) that will decontaminate all CBRNe contaminated areas as well as people: a universal solution is difficult. Currently available technologies that respond to personal decontamination include: skin decontaminants (e.g. soap, enzyme preparations, RSDL, alldecont, etc.) and devices such as decontamination shower tents and trailers. Agents for surface decontamination (e.g. OWR’s GD-6 amongst others) have also been developed and devices (such as vacuum chambers, handheld agent fogging devices etc.) are available to both military and civil first responders to decontaminate materials from computers, tanks and sensitive equipment. Even though we cannot deny the efforts put into these developments, these solutions still require the first responder to enter the contaminated zone. Let us now turn to the state of the art of unmanned solutions in CBRNe response.
The only notable unmanned solution to decontamination is Kärcher’s automated DSAP shower tent. The 240-C4T version with four tents is an automated decontamination solution as it includes a traffic light system for the victims to undress themselves, shower themselves, and redress without the need of physical assistance from a first responder. Although the first responders are still very close to the contaminated area, the traffic light system is a small adaption made that allows first responders to work out of the danger zone. The most promising unmanned solutions to infrastructural decontamination, on the other hand, are UGVs (unmanned ground vehicles). The combination of CBRN agents and IEDs (improvised explosive devices), have encouraged the development of UGVs with counter-CBRN capabilities. These have been developed based on already-existing robots specialized in C-IED and EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) tasks in order to allow for the removal of the first responder from hazard: a characteristic that is particularly relevant to the CBRN field. The current available capabilities of UGVs in response to CBRN threats are related to CBRN detection. This includes CBRN-sensors detectors, x-ray equipment and modules that can be mounted onto the chassis on the mounting points of robots in order to alert and report CBRN threats. The available modules do not include decontamination modules. UGVs and their modules are of particular interest, as the modular solution means a minor addition to the currently available technologies, whilst adding an entire decontamination of CBRN capability. Why can’t other minor adaptions or more significant developments make unmanned decontamination a reality?
Developments we need to see
It is unquestionable that there are difficulties in decontamination, which makes the development of unmanned solutions to decontamination difficult, but these can and should be overcome. Firstly, the fact that there is no universal solution to decontamination, seems to imply the development of an infinite number of robots for each solution. Diakont’s development of the underwater remote decontamination robot should be noted as one of the only remote robotic solution that has been developed to decontaminate “RN” specifically, but it is not the rule. The specificity is not necessary if we consider 1. the module-based approach of CBRN detection in UGVs mentioned above, and 2. the minor adjustments to already existing technologies (i.e. DSAP’s traffic light system) are not as significant as they may seem. Most importantly, it is worth the investment if we can remove the first-responder from the hot zone. This investment would also not be huge if we can develop platform-independent solutions that could be mounted on UGVs that have already been in use by end-users for years.
Another more specific problem related to the use of UGVs in the decontamination of infrastructure, is the need to decontaminate the robot itself, as it is usually expensive technology. We have the capabilities to decontaminate sensitive equipment, so the technology is not lost to the agent. Furthermore, in any case, the robot would be contaminated in place of the first responder. The decontamination of the robot is already considered and has been addressed in UGV solutions to CBRN detection. Our argument does not aim at removing the first-responder all-together, as essential decision-making elements in CBRN response (e.g. injury assessment), would still be conducted by experts. It is true that the state-of-the-art of the cognitive capabilities of robots do not allow to remove the first-responder completely (yet), but the inclusion of automated elements can significantly reduce the number of first responders required for CBRN response, and therefore the probability of secondary contamination. For example, when decontaminating a CBRN agent contaminated tank, if OWR’s handheld fogging device (Fogbooster) was put onto a robotic arm controlled by two responders in a control room, the number of first responders involved in the decontamination procedure would drop from 9 to 2 in the control room and would save a significant amount of time.
Overall, we have the technology available – it just needs to be adapted. Adapting already existing technologies to CBRN decontamination saves time, material and most importantly people. Robots have been introduced to and accepted by almost all segments of society, particularly in security and defense. Although there are challenges that need to be addressed: it is essential to invest in expand these capabilities to unmanned CBRN decontamination. Why would we risk the lives of these first responders, when it is not required?