The use by non-state actors of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) with a CBRN component has led to the development and deployment of mobile unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) for EOD (explosives ordnance disposal) with enhanced CBRN capabilities.

Cobham Unmanned Systems make semiautonomous and remote controlled robots that can take samples of suspected biological or chemical warfare agents, with reconnaissance platforms for CBRNE detection. ©Cobham Unmanned Systems

Daesh has laid dozens of IEDs laced with chlorine and mustard, and a growing number of terrorist incidents involve vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDs) linked to propane gas cylinders and other improvised chemical and incendiary enhancements. Plots are being interdicted where chemical and radiological materials were a possible factor in a planned attack. These threats have reinforced the need for UGVs with counter-CBRN capabilities.

UGVs, also known as RCVs – remote-controlled vehicles – have allowed bomb techs to stay safely away from a hazard and also provide data about it more quickly than if handled manually, as long as the EOD personnel can rely on the robot to complete the task. UGVs have saved innumerable lives since their introduction in the 1970s, evolving from their civil defence role to military EOD in insurgencies and other forms of asymmetric warfare.

The Endeavor Robotics 510 PackBot CBRN Recce System incorporates a CBRN suite that integrates five primary sensors to reliably detect, alert and report on chemical warfare agents, toxic industrial chemicals, volatile gases, explosives and radiation. ©Endeavor Robotics

They are also invaluable in operations involving hazardous materials (hazmat), where rescue forces working manually are endangered if substances are released. Companies have either adapted UGVs to CBRNE applications or have designed these elements into new-build robots.

Robotic devices used for EOD can, however be hampered by their limited mobility in traversing rough terrain. It may also be necessary to decontaminate RCVs after an operation. This adds design difficulties, especially if radiation hardening has to be incorporated into the robot.

Rapid identification

The main goal is to identify the CBRN agent in the device, which may be sealed, or leaking hazardous material if not well sealed. Many RCVs now have detectors to survey and identify CBRN agents for transmitting data back to the ICP (Incident Control Point), and many sensors are designed to be used in the Hot Zone.

A shielded IED may be a RDD (radiological dispersal device), which could consist of the usual main charge, detonator, trigger mechanism – but also a radioactive component either incorporated in the device or connected to it. For RDDs, a ruggedized microprocessor-controlled radiation detector is needed. Detectors have integrated sensors for all types of radiation – alpha (short-range, non-penetrative) and beta and gamma (longer-range, penetrative).

Non-intrusive analytical X-ray equipment can perceive liquid or powder fill, which may indicate an ICD (improvised chemical device). When dealing with TICs (toxic industrial chemicals) and CWAs (chemical warfare agents), a compact CWA and TIC detector is pre-positioned close to the entry ‘spy’ point made by a small cordless rotary tool.

X-raying the contents of a device can be done by a remotely operated mobile radiography system. The Logos Imaging Pixium Portable System will take high-resolution X-rays of the IED, taking 10 seconds to produce a 16-bit picture. The X-ray source is enclosed to facilitate decontamination.

The Environics ChemPro Detector Module can be mounted on a RCV. It has a multi-sensor CWA and TIC detection array with 10 sensing channels and an open-loop ion mobility spectroscopy (IMS) sensor able to provide CWA sensitivity for chemical weapons below the level of military grade, which is increasingly likely to occur with terrorist ICDs.

The digital output of the ChemProDM can be integrated into the displays of robots or vehicles. An optional remote alarm unit (RAU) can be mounted away from the ChemPro module and can replicate the display of a handheld chemical detector used in reconnaissance by dismounted personnel. An optional vehicle radiation detector allows the ChemProDM and RAU to simultaneously provide vapour and gamma radiation detection.


The Endeavor Robotics (formerly iRobot) 110 FirstLook hand-throwable tracked mini-UGV has a new integrated deployment and camera (IDAC) platform designed for integrating the Joint Chemical Agent Detector (JCAD), Smith Detection LCD 3.3, MultiRAE, and Canberra Radiac payloads of CBRNE sensors onto the chassis on mounting points.

The Endeavor Robotics 110 FirstLook hand-throwable tracked mini-UGV can integrate a range of CBRNE sensors onto the chassis mounting points. ©Endeavor Robotics

The 510 PackBot CBRN Recce System includes a CBRN suite integrating five primary sensors to reliably detect, alert and report on CWAs, TICs, volatile gases, explosives and radiation – in addition to its functions for EOD, reconnaissance, route clearance and data collection in industrial settings.

The US QinetiQ Talon, used extensively in Afghanistan, includes the Talon Hazmat with a 45-kg payload on its extending arm that can carry CBRN-related sensors as well as thermal cameras.

The original EOD robot, the famous Wheelbarrow first invented in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, is now made by Remotec UK (part of Northrop Grumman). The latest-generation Mk 9 tracked UGV is capable of lifting 150 kg and is tested with CBRN sensor equipment with tools for collecting forensic evidence, with more than 2000 vehicles in service worldwide.

Cobham Unmanned Systems’ NBC-Max service robot is a small tracked mobile sensor platform that can be equipped with sensors to detect CBRNE materials and take samples.

The Med-Eng Avenger has an on-board computer to receive data simultaneously from CBRN sensors. ©Med-Eng

The recently launched Med-Eng Avenger designed for police and military response teams in urban settings has an on-board computer to receive data simultaneously from several third-party CBRN sensors. It relays this information to its command console where team leaders at a command post can make well-informed decisions based on real time data, video and audio.

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Andy Oppenheimer AIExpE MIABTI is Editor of CBNW (Chemical, Biological & Nuclear Warfare) journal and a consultant in CBRNE and counter-terrorism. He is author of IRA: The Bombs and the Bullets (Irish Academic Press, 2008) and of the CBRN and IEDs module courses for the St Andrews University Certificate in Terrorism Studies.