Bomb squads face off in ‘Ro­bot Rodeo’ com­pe­ti­tion

Orlando Sentinel - - LOCAL & STATE - By Joe Mario Ped­er­sen

As ro­botic fin­gers del­i­cately grasped a ping pong ball rep­re­sent­ing a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous de­vice, Jessie Salazar of the Orange County Sher­iff’s Of­fice Hazardous De­vice Team sat in a truck 300 yards away, metic­u­lously op­er­at­ing the con­trols.

“You can’t be too gen­tle with it, or you’ll drop it. Too much force, and you’ll crush it,” said Chris Heavey, one of Salazar’s team­mates and a fel­low com­peti­tor dur­ing the Sher­iff’s Of­fice’s 10th an­nual Ro­botic Ex­plo­sive Or­di­nance Dis­posal Rodeo and X-Ray Train­ing, a week­long com­pe­ti­tion that be­gan Thurs­day.

The Orange County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice’s ro­bot spe­cial­izes in han­dling dan­ger­ous sub­stances and dis­arm­ing bombs.

Salazar guided the ro­bot as it snaked through an ob­sta­cle course Thurs­day at an OCSO range, lo­cated on the east side of Orange County. Bomb squads from nearly 20 dif­fer­ent agen­cies tested their skills on the same course this week.

The agen­cies were from as nearby as Brevard County and as far as Colorado and Cal­i­for­nia.

Af­ter rolling through the en­tire course, Salazar dropped his ping pawn ball into a ex­plo­sive con­tain­ment unit — which is ca­pa­ble of with­stand­ing the C-4 ex­plo­sives.

Salazar fin­ished with a time of 15:30, but was pe­nal­ized by one minute for run­ning over a perime­ter cone. De­spite the mis­take, Orange County was still one of the force of front-run­ners, ac­cord­ing to Lt. Chris Hall, who was co­or­di­nat­ing the event.

“I would say we have a pretty good chance of be­ing in the top eight,” said Hall, who’s been the com­man­der of the OCSO bomb squad for three years. The squad won the an­nual com­pe­ti­tion in 2017 and fin­ished sec­ond in the 2018 East­ern Na­tional Ro­bot Rodeo, Hall said.

“It’s pretty com­pet­i­tive here, but it’s more about shar­ing ideas and get to know other agen­cies bet­ter,” he said. “You might win the whole com­pe­ti­tion, but some­one might see your tech­nique and sug­gest a bet­ter way to do it. That’s the point.”

Re­la­tion­ships are built through these com­pe­ti­tions that can prove vi­tal when dis­as­ters hap­pen, Hall said. “Dur­ing Pulse we had Vo­lu­sia come help and give our guys some rest,” he said.

The com­pe­ti­tion also gives the com­pa­nies that make bomb-dis­posal robots an op­por­tu­nity to show off the lat­est mod­els. Telerob USA came from Erie, Penn., to show off the “tele­max hy­brid,” which was equipped with a very ad­vanced ro­botic arm. Sale price:$225,000. “That’s ac­tu­ally on the cheaper side,” said Hall, who said keep­ing up with the lat­est tech­nol­ogy is chal­leng­ing given the grow­ing mar­ket and bud­get con­straints. “Some [robots] can run $750,000 to $1 mil­lion.”

There is no mon­e­tary re­ward for the win­ners of OCSO’s com­pe­ti­tion, but there is a big first-place tro­phy.

Fri­day is the fi­nal day of the com­pe­ti­tion. when the teams will put a va­ri­ety of skills to the test, such as mak­ing pre­ci­sion shots with a dis­rupt­ing can­non and iden­ti­fy­ing home­made ex­plo­sives. The top eight teams will then set­tle on a win­ner — through a chal­lenge in­volv­ing dis­arm­ing ex­plo­sives.

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