Each spring, Sandia National Laboratories hosts a robot rodeo in the desert in New Mexico. Bomb squads around the country bring their own robots to compete and train in the event. The robot training scenarios mimic real world scenarios — almost real world, anyway: in one Men in Black inspired scenario, the robot had to drive into a plane fuselage to pick up vials of alien blood, and samples of something else. “It might seem funny — and it was — but it’s really also training [the robots] to think about your operational sequence and to think it through. Don’t just get excited and start driving inside the airplane,” Jake Deuel, robotics manager at Sandia and rodeo coordinator told The Verge. The bomb squads also enter downed planes, faux-radioactive sites, and climb flights of stairs. “Everybody else is running away from the bomb, and these guys are going in,” says Deuel.
The goal is to help bomb squads handle dire situations in the real world, and help test robot operators’ problem-solving skills. The fun stories help, but it’s really about robot manipulation and control. “It’s not just like driving around remote-controlled cars. It’s complicated. There are broken wings and sharp objects, challenging areas you’ve got to get the robot in,” Deuel explains. And driving robots is a perishable skill — for bomb squads, it’s imperative that the skill doesn’t get rusty. Typically, 10 to 12 teams compete in 10 to 12 scenarios of 90 minutes each. Watch robots compete in the video.