'Caveman' teaches robotics to troops in Iraq
January 7, 2009
Soldiers in Iraq are now better trained to use the Army's latest robotic systems thanks to the work of Redstone Arsenal's "Caveman."
Although his moniker dates to prehistoric times, Norm Root is very much up-to-date with the high tech use of robots like the Marcbot IV-N (Multi-Function Agile Remote Control Robot) and Packbot 510 with Fastac (Fast Tactical) Kit in explosive hazard identification, surveillance and reconnaissance, and route clearance.
Root recently returned from a two-month training mission in Iraq where he taught Soldiers and Marines the techniques and tricks of using the robots for bomb identification and other life threatening situations in theater.
"They asked me at first to train Soldiers and Marines on the new equipment, the Marcbot IV-N. But those are just now getting in the field and it turned out training was really needed with the Fastac. So they asked me if I would train them on how to use the Fastac, which is in very big demand," said Root, who is a Redstone contractor with Qualis Corp. working in support of PEO-Ground Combat Systems, Robotic Systems Joint Project Office.
"It's not up to us to tell the Soldiers what they need. It's up to them to tell us what they want and we'll support it. The Marcbot and the Fastac are designed for different missions. The Marcbot is an observation robot and the Fastac is more of a multi-purpose robot."
While the Marcbot IV-N features a camera for use in the inspection of suspicious objects during improvised explosive devices sweeps, the Packbot 510 with Fastac Kit not only provides two cameras for inspections but also a robotic arm for the manipulation of objects. Both are among the 1,800 Army robots in Iraq that are vital to the protection of warfighters in situations involving improvised explosive devices and other explosives.
Root's training mission took him to the Army's four Joint Robotic Repair Facilities, located at Camp Victory, Camp Taqaddum, Camp Speicher and in the Mosul area. At these facilities, Root conducted two-day training classes that involved about 14 Soldiers and Marines each. About 150 Soldiers and Marines went through the training classes.
The training program used by Root was developed at Redstone Arsenal.
"We teach capabilities and limitations," Root said. "One of the limitations of robots is they use cameras. If it's dusty and dirty you can't see too far. So a good camera is invaluable.
"Another limitation is the battery life. Robots use batteries and that is often the biggest drawback because battery life is only three or four hours. Once the battery starts going down you start having problems controlling the robot."
Root said it was relatively easy to teach Soldiers and Marines how to control the robots remotely. Many of his students grew up as video "gamers," so they understand how to use controllers to move robots. But they also had to know how to assemble their robots, how to control the robots remotely with the use of a camera lens and how to manipulate the robot to complete a mission.
"The first day of training they learn to build up their robot and drive it a little bit," Root said. "The second day we put them through different scenarios to test their ability to control the robot. They will do things like pick up trash or hunt for golf balls. Golf balls are good tools because they are easy to hide, and you can throw them or place them in all kinds of places. You can write numbers on them and then have the students read the numbers with their robot's camera."
Root was able to adapt the training to his students' capabilities. One Soldier was so adept at using the robot that Root gave him specific challenges to test his robot control skills. The Soldier used his robot to put golf balls in little paper cups and then stacked the cups into a pyramid. Even more challenging was when a cup was placed under the Soldier's chin and then the Soldier was challenged to manipulate the robot arm in such a way that he placed a golf ball in the cup without jabbing his Adam's apple.
Root's training mission in Iraq was not his first time in that country. The retired Marine lieutenant colonel served as a liaison officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Fallujah in 2004, for which he received a combat action ribbon. He also served as a maintenance officer for the Cobra Aircraft Squadron during Desert Storm in 1991. Root's 35-year career in the Marines also took him to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala and other locations in the Middle East.
It was a career that became his choice at age 14.
"I attended Devil Pups, a two-week camp at Camp Pendleton, Calif., that was run by the Reserves. It was a boot camp for kids. And I loved it," he said.
"The Marine Corps is part mental and a lot physical. It's about responsibility and leadership. It was a perfect match for me."
Root also enjoyed the opportunities the Marine Corps gave him to mentor and teach fellow Marines. Those opportunities were also part of his civilian training mission in Iraq.
"For every class, I would have the normal mix of Soldiers or Marines. Some would come in cocky and thinking they knew everything. Others would be quiet. And some would even be more interested in playing with their cell phones," he said.
"But most of them understood that robots and the training they received on robots could save their lives. I would tell them they had two jobs in Iraq and their robot was going to help them do both. Their first job is to accomplish the mission. Their second job is to get their butt home in one piece."
For every robot blown up or damaged during a mission, there is at least one less Soldier or Marine going home wounded or dead.
"Our robots are still getting blown up. But that's better than someone getting hurt," Root said.
Though Iraq is still dangerous, he said the danger is diminished since his earlier days in Iraq. Now, military helicopters fly most missions during the day and ground missions are conducted primarily by the Iraqi army with U.S. troops providing support.
Still, there is the randomness of attack - particularly from suicide bombers and IEDs -- that is most life threatening to Soldiers and Marines as well at the Iraqi army and civilians.
"We're not really in the fight now,' Root said. "It's more 'What would you like us to do to support you'' In 2004, the Marines had to report in for permission if they went on a mission and wanted to involve Iraqi troops on that mission. Now, they have to report for permission if Iraqi troops are going out on mission and they are going along in support. Iraqis now run the patrols with the Marines only helping with support."
Root appreciates the changes he saw in the Iraq of 2004 and the Iraq of today.
"It's a much safer place, a much better place. But will it last' History will tell us," he said.
Now that he's returned home, Root and other employees at the Arsenal's joint robotics program are working on the final details of a move that will relocate the program's development and acquisition activities to Detroit Arsenal in Warren, Mich. Their work will be consolidated with the PEO-Ground Combat Systems, Program Executive Office Combat Support and Combat Service Support and Tank Automotive Research Development Engineering Center as part of the 2005 BRAC recommendations.
But Root hopes to not leave Redstone Arsenal and Huntsville. He and his wife, Kathy, relocated about two years ago when Root retired from the Marines. Root's last position with the Marine Corps was as director of Reserve Affairs for the Marine Corps Service Command in Quantico, Va. In that position, Root traveled the nation for briefings at Reserve units. Those travels brought him to Huntsville to visit the Marine's Kilo Battery, and the city became his choice as a good place to live after his retirement.
"This is one of the best cities I've ever been to," Root said of Huntsville. "You can get anything you want here while at the same time it still has that small city feeling."