The roving eye

Last updated 1 Mar 13 @ 11:52 |
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Robert de la Poer explores the rapidly-evolving field of deployable reconnaissance, which adds a vital new perspective on tactical hostage rescue and counter terrorism situations


Often the greatest threat faced by police Special Forces and other special operations units involved in a hostage situation is the unknown. When planning a tactical response, a huge number of variables must be taken into account, including the layout of the building, the number and location of the terrorists, their state of mind, their weaponry and countermeasures, the number and positioning of hostages… Without such information, an attack – however well planned – is likely to result in the death of hostages and even Special Forces operatives.

While some of this information can be gained from conventional low-tech methods – from studying the building’s blueprints to stand-off surveillance, Special Forces teams are constantly on the lookout for new technology which can give them greater situational insight in the shortest possible timeframe. Over the years a variety of technologies have been added to their surveillance arsenal, such as flexible inspection scopes and miniature microphones, infra-red heat signature detection and through-wall acoustic location detection.

But the threat of a terrorist attack involving hostage-taking elements continues to grow, and the need for more advanced surveillance systems continues to grow with it. In February three men were convicted of plotting a terrorist attack against targets in the UK, with their intended tactics thought to be in part inspired by the 2008 Mumbai attacks. During those attacks, Islamist terrorists took more than 200 people hostage in the Taj Mahal and Oberoi Trident hotels and the Nariman House Jewish centre. Thirty-seven hostages and two members of the Pakistani Special Forces were killed in the subsequent rescue attempts.

There is no doubt that effective surveillance inside such situations could provide life-saving intelligence, but getting it in there without detection is both difficult and dangerous. While remote operated vehicles have long been cited as the ideal platforms for such infiltration the technology was, until very recently, not up to the challenge – they were too large, too heavy and too complicated to operate in such delicate tactical scenarios. But this is rapidly changing, as robotics companies seek to produce tactical robots small and reliable enough to do the job.

One such company is ReconRobotics, which was formed in 2006 to commercialise robotics technology developed at the University of Minnesota Distributed Robotics Laboratory under funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Foundation. Marketing Director Jack Klobucar described why the company’s systems have been welcomed by Special Forces units around the world. “Our primary challenge is always to find the balance between the robots’ ideal size and weight and its range, operating run time and durability,” he said. “Our Throwbot XT has been highly successful because it is incredibly simple to operate, extremely lightweight and easy to deploy. Military and police personnel use it constantly, and it provides them with lifesaving video and audio reconnaissance.

“Throwbot was the first tactical reconnaissance micro-robot. It was sublimely small and very simple to operate, and it could be thrown up to 36m. The product has since evolved into several variants, the latest of which is the Throwbot XT (TXT) with video and audio reconnaissance capabilities.”

The Throwbot systems are designed to be small, durability and easy to use in the field. The Throwbot XT Audio delivers both video and audio reconnaissance, is equipped with an automatic infrared optical system and can traverse cluttered indoor environments or outdoor landscapes. With a weight of just 540g, it is water resistant and can be thrown up to 36m. As Jack Klobucar explained, these features were considered essential if the system was to prove viable in the field. “Small robots have been built by other manufacturers, but they are limited by a lack of mobility, and the ability to withstand multiple impacts at high G forces,” he said. “They are also several times heavier than the Throwbot XT. The 540g weight of this ReconRobotics ultra-lightweight robot is no accident. It was selected to approximate the weight of a grenade, the weight of which maximises both throwing distance and accuracy. In addition, the total system weight of the robot and operator control unit (OCU) is less than 1.36kg, far less than any other military or law enforcement unmanned ground vehicle.”

The TXTa is equipped with an infrared optical system that automatically turns on when the ambient light is low, and it can transmit video and audio up to 30m through walls, windows and doors to the OCU. The robot can also be specified in any of three pre-determined transmitting frequencies, allowing users to operate up to three robots in the same environment at the same time.

Once deployed, the system can be directed to quietly move through a building and transmit real-time video and audio to the operator via the handheld OCU. Operating the device requires no special training, and the company claims it can be deployed in five seconds, simply by pulling the activation pin and throwing it into an environment. In this way it can be used to rapidly locate and identify subjects, confirm the presence of hostages, listen in on conversations and reveal the layout of rooms – all essential information which can make the difference between a rapid, successful rescue and a disaster.

If a team member is in cover and wishes to gain immediate situational awareness without exposing himself to attack, the company’s robots can also be used as periscopes, as Jack Klobucar explained. “The Recon Scout SearchStick pole enables tactical operators to convert any robot into a versatile pole camera that can be used to see over walls, through windows and into culverts,” he said. “The SearchStick is 52cm long and fits in a standard patrol pack, but it can expand to a length of 183cm. It is constructed out of aluminum and features actuated jaws that can grasp and release the robot with one-button operation. This allows tactical teams to quietly place the robot into an elevated environment or confined space, and retrieve it later when the reconnaissance is completed.

More than 4,000 Throwbot and Recon Scout robots have so far been deployed worldwide by military forces and by more than 650 law enforcement agencies in 33 countries. As well as the US Army, Navy and Marine Corps, users include many US Federal agencies such as the US Marshals, Border Patrol, FBI and ATF, and international forces such the French RAID (Recherché Assistance Intervention) counterterrorism team.

With demand continuing to grow among special operations units for the capabilities offered by such deployable tactical surveillance systems, it is likely we will see rapid advances in the next few years, both in terms of their size, durability and range and the sophistication of their sensor packages. “As the company strives to make the robot smaller, lighter, faster, last longer, with greater sensor packaging and increase mobility,” said Jack Klobucar. “Anyone interested will need to watch ReconRobotics this year for exciting new developments.”


Case study:

Toulouse counter-terrorism operation

In March 2012, an Islamic extremist carried out a series of gun attacks in which three French soldiers, three children and a rabbi were killed at a Jewish elementary school in Toulouse. The perpetrator, 23-year-old Mohamed Merah, was traced to an apartment block in the early hours of the morning of 20 March. Initial attempts by police to call Merah out from his home were unsuccessful, and he fired at officers through his apartment door. He later claimed that he would not be taken without a fight. A 30-hour stand-off ensued, during which Merah fired more shots at police.

During this time, commandos from the elite French RAID counterterrorism team were called to resolve the situation. They deployed two Recon Scout robots: one to provide a better view of the closest access point to the suspect and the other to provide overall situational awareness before the assault was triggered. A ReconRobotics Recon Scout XT was deployed in front of the assault team as they entered the building, opening their search angle, progressing their search up staircases and enabling them to see in very low light using the robot’s infrared capabilities.

As the apartment door was slightly open, operatives threw the robot onto the landing stairs, right in the firing zone. This gave them a better view of the situation, although the robot was not able to progress through the entire apartment because of the furniture that the subject had piled up everywhere. Throughout this reconnaissance phase, the operator of the robot was located behind another RAID officer who held a ballistic shield.

The robot identified that the suspect was barricaded in the bathroom – not in the part of the apartment in which the robot was operating. At no point was the suspect aware of the presence of the robot. With the suspect’s location identified, the team then entered the room, and he was neutralised shortly after.