As an incident Tuesday afternoon in Mount Airy illustrates, bombs can threaten the local community, but there is a new tool — three of them to be exact — for handling such cases more safely.
A trio of lightweight robots was delivered to the State Bureau of Investigation Bomb Squad just in time for the Fourth of July — often a busy time for its technicians.
Those newest members of the squad each weigh about 70 pounds, have six cameras and have the ability to go up and down stairs, lift about 15 pounds and cut wires.
The robots don’t need a big truck to be deployed, and have the capability to remotely locate and neutralize improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in confined spaces such as aircraft, buses and trains.
They could play a role in bomb-related cases locally since the SBI squad serves all 100 counties in North Carolina. It also assists federal, state and tribal authorities in situations involving IEDs, weapons of mass destruction, suspicious packages, homemade fireworks and other explosive hazards.
Such a hazard emerged Tuesday afternoon at Mayberry Mall here, which involved a pipe bomb being found in a minivan that police had stopped for a traffic violation. It created a tense situation at the mall, where authorities formed a perimeter around the Dodge Grand Caravan while awaiting the arrival of SBI Bomb Squad personnel who later detonated the device off-premises.
While the new robotics technology was not engaged for that particular incident, local public safety officials welcome its availability for bomb-related cases in the future.
“That is just another example of how we can utilize technology, which is more expendable than human beings,” Mount Airy Police Chief Dale Watson said.
“It’s good whenever we can put a machine in harm’s way rather than an individual.”
Watson is happy about the fact that the robots can be accessed by agencies in Surry County as needed. “That’s a great idea.”
Mount Airy Fire Department Chief Zane Poindexter also embraces the robots’ entry into the public safety arena.
“Having something like that available — I mean, replacing a human with a robot that is not capable of being injured like a human is — is of utmost importance,” Poindexter said Thursday.
“I really am happy and pleased with the progress that the bomb squad has made in getting it,” he added regarding the robotics technology. “One of our area (SBI) investigators is being trained on that.”
The fire chief said the new robots reflect a welcome trend of more technological advancements being developed to enhance safety for law enforcement, fire and other personnel.
In addition to bomb-related cases, the robots will be used to support special operations that involve violent, barricaded suspects and hostage situations.
Bomb cases abound
With 64 calls just since January, members of the SBI Bomb Squad also are applauding their three “helpers.”
“These new robots will be small enough to enter tight spaces where bomb technicians had to go before, and that was a very high-risk environment for them,” said Tim Luper, the squad’s commander. “Confined spaces magnify the effect of explosives.”
In 2016, agents responded to 125 calls for service. Some of those calls involved explosives such as dynamite that was legally purchased at the time by citizens but stored incorrectly or was deteriorating.
“Others make explosive devices for criminal reasons,” Luper said. He recalled a case in 2013 when 10 IEDS in a suitcase exploded when opened and damaged a robot, which otherwise might have claimed the life of a bomb technician.
“The whole reason the bomb squad exists is for public safety,” said Luper. “Bomb technicians carry out some very delicate work and often risk their lives performing their duties. These robots will thankfully keep our personnel safer as well.”
The three robots were bought using a $153,000 grant involving the Governor’s Crime Commission and delivered to the State Bureau of Investigation Bomb Squad on June 27.
Yet the ability to replace a human with a robot in a dangerous situation is “something you can’t put a price tag on,” Mount Airy’s fire chief said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.