The US Air Force wants to buy a big robot to help with bomb disposal

WASHINGTON — A year after the U.S. Army awarded a contract to build a heavy-duty robot able to dispose of bombs and other explosives, the Air Force is looking for its own system — and it wants to see what’s on the market before committing to purchasing what the Army buys.

The Air Force in October released a solicitation for a large explosive ordnance disposal robot, a commercial off-the-shelf system equipped with a maneuverable arm and a camera system that can function in all terrain types, environments and weather conditions.

An Air Force spokesman declined to confirm how many companies submitted bids for the program, which were due Nov. 20.

One competitor has already come forward: FLIR, which is set to rake in as much as $109 million building its Kobra robot for the Army’s Common Robotic System-Heavy program. The company began full-rate production of Kobra last month and is confident the Air Force will follow the Army’s example by choosing the same system.

“As the chosen provider for the Army’s Common Robotic System-Heavy (CRS-H) program, FLIR believes its extensively tested and proven unmanned ground system meets the Air Force needs in the large EOD robot category, while enabling commonality of equipment with other services’ EOD forces,” said Tom Frost, who runs FLIR’s unmanned ground systems business.

QinetiQ, which lost out to FLIR in the CRS-H competition, did not respond to a query about whether it had bid on the Air Force program.

At times, the Air Force has joined Army robot programs without needing to hold a competition. But in the case of larger EOD robots, the two services have differing requirements that have led the Air Force to seek out its own system instead of jumping into the CRS-H program, said S. Chase Cooper, a contracting officer who is managing the EOD robot solicitation on behalf of the Air Force’s 772nd Enterprise Sourcing Squadron.

“The major difference is that the Army’s mission is primarily to operate ‘outside the wire’ ” — that is, outside of a secure military installation — “where the Air Force’s mission is primarily ‘inside the wire.’ These are two entirely different environments,” he said in a statement to Defense News.

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