Ukraine’s Bomb Squads Have a New Top Dog

Move over, mine-sniffing pups. Robots are taking your job.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
The robot Spot
The robot Spot
The robot Spot during a demonstration in Versailles, France, on June 10, 2021. Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Army has agreed to provide one of its two robotic dogs to help an American nonprofit clean up mines and other ordnance in Ukraine, according to a person familiar with the decision, as the war-torn nation faces a World War II-level cleanup from unexploded Russian munitions.

HALO Trust, a demining enterprise with multiple U.S. government contracts to work in Ukraine, will use “Spot,” a Boston Dynamics-made robot dog, to remove mortar shells and cluster munitions in formerly Russian-controlled areas near the capital of Kyiv, said Chris Whatley, the group’s executive director.

In a test session last year, Spot worked well with small, volatile rounds, similar to those that have been seen throughout Ukraine. Whatley is hoping that will translate into dealing with cluster munitions that Russia has used indiscriminately in Ukraine, leaving behind bomblets that scatter all across the country.

The U.S. Army has agreed to provide one of its two robotic dogs to help an American nonprofit clean up mines and other ordnance in Ukraine, according to a person familiar with the decision, as the war-torn nation faces a World War II-level cleanup from unexploded Russian munitions.

HALO Trust, a demining enterprise with multiple U.S. government contracts to work in Ukraine, will use “Spot,” a Boston Dynamics-made robot dog, to remove mortar shells and cluster munitions in formerly Russian-controlled areas near the capital of Kyiv, said Chris Whatley, the group’s executive director.

In a test session last year, Spot worked well with small, volatile rounds, similar to those that have been seen throughout Ukraine. Whatley is hoping that will translate into dealing with cluster munitions that Russia has used indiscriminately in Ukraine, leaving behind bomblets that scatter all across the country.

Deploying a robotic arm in place of its head, Spot could help drag unexploded munitions—such as cluster bombs—to pits containing other munitions, allowing them to be safely exploded far from civilians in batches of up to 50 to 100 shells, and without endangering any of HALO’s 10 teams that have been deployed in Bucha and Brovary.

While deminers can be trained in six weeks, many Ukrainian employees have scattered since the invasion; some are stuck in Russian-occupied areas, and others enlisted in the military, including those in Mariupol and in the Donbas. That puts a premium on robotic help. “If you can just move something without endangering a human and move it far enough that you can take it to a place where it can be safely detonated with other items, you move up the curve massively,” Whatley said.

Boston Dynamics did not comment on the specific transfer of the robot dog to HALO Trust. “In general, Spot is an effective tool for keeping people out of harm’s way, and the robot is often used to inspect potentially hazardous materials from a safe distance,” Nikolas Noel, the company’s marketing and communications director, told Foreign Policy in an email. The company’s terms and conditions prevent the robot “from being weaponized or used for purposes of harm or intimidation,” he added. The U.S. Army’s Futures Command, which approved the transfer of the dog, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Spot can be trained to automatically do repetitive tasks without human help, like turning switches on and off. But because the robot dog would be operating in less predictable environments, such as minefields and contaminated roads and fields, its human owners operated the dog manually in the training sessions last year. “I would say within 10 or 15 minutes, we were able to regularly, safely pick up rounds, and not have them drop out of the dog’s mouth,” Whatley said.

It has become increasingly common for deminers to use robots in the field, such as wire-cutting machines and ground-penetrating radars, to extend their productivity and mitigate the risk of getting blown up in the field. Massachusetts State Police units were loaned the Spot robot in 2019 to remotely observe suspicious areas or locations. The U.S. Army is funding the so-called Common Robotic System, a 25-pound tracked robot that can clear buildings of bombs and identify enemies for infantry squads before close combat, while other units favor the six-wheeled Man Transportable Robotic System Increment II that can be operated by a handheld controller.

The State Department provided funding for one group, the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, to purchase seven-ton MV-4 robots that can traverse mine-contaminated areas to clear vegetation that could conceal unexploded ordnance left behind from the fighting.

“The operator can sit back, about 50-odd meters, a hundred meters back,” said Anthony Connell, the country director for Ukraine at the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action. “It can be fitted with a video camera system. So you can see pretty much to the front and the sides of the thing, and that’s one way to deal with the tripwires.” But the MV-4 is not nearly as nimble as Spot: More than 6 feet wide, it can’t fit between trees in heavily forested areas, for instance. HALO also received a remote-controlled Robocut vegetation cutter—think of a super high-tech lawn mower—from the U.S. Army to support its work in the Donbas ahead of Russia’s invasion, Whatley said.

The need to field more sophisticated demining robots has picked up as Russia’s use of cluster munitions has expanded across the Ukrainian battlefield. Russian troops have even packed cluster bomblets inside of ballistic missiles, allowing them to spray at random when they hit the ground. Cluster munitions have been particularly lethal to operators in the field and to children, who can pick up the bomblets by accident.

“Kids are naturally curious,” Connell said. “They want to go looking and they find stuff and they touch it—and bang.” The independent weapons investigation outfit Airwars found that Russia likely used cluster bombs in a February strike on a children’s hospital and a blood donation center.

Robots could also help fetch Russian POM-3 anti-personnel mines, which can be seismically triggered on the ground from nearly 70 feet away, and which deminers believe is a novel weapon first unveiled on the Ukrainian battlefield after the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24. “Really the only way to deal with it is using machines,” Connell said. Larger weapons, such as anti-tank belts, that have been left over from Russia’s failed siege of Kyiv will likely need to be hauled away by teams or larger machines.

Groups like HALO Trust have only just begun demining areas outside of Kyiv, with ongoing fighting in the Donbas far beyond their reach. But Ukrainian civilians displaced by the conflict are already eager to come home. The United Nations refugee agency has registered some 2.8 million border crossings back into Ukraine since Feb. 28. Deminers are worried that Russian troops have left booby traps and bombs in the rubble of homes caught up in the fighting—an effort to terrorize the Ukrainian population and deny them the ability to return home—that can be found in anything from household appliances like washing machines to children’s toys. “It’s really just to say this is my visiting card, thank you for having us,” Connell. said “It’s straight terrorism. There’s no other way to describe it.”

For Whatley, HALO Trust’s executive director who hopes to expand to 50 mine clearance teams in Ukraine by the end of 2022, that makes the need for mine clearance robots like Spot all the more urgent. He said he could easily see his deminers fielding a pack of up to a dozen robot dogs.

“There are Ukrainian lives that could be saved yesterday,” Whatley said. Speaking of the demining effort, he said, “it’s on a scale like nothing since World War II.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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