The Robot Rodeo where bots battle bombs


Media is ablaze with warnings against a future where robots with AI threaten a human future. But are all robots bad?

Recent movies from “Terminator Genysis” to “Chappie” and “Ex Machina” all consider a future where robots take on bigger roles.

In the U.S., there is an annual battle of advanced robots — robots that are a force for good. Guess what? This battle takes the form of a rodeo.

At the annual Robot Rodeo held at Sandia Labs, robots from around the world get down and dirty to prove they are the best bomb bots.

Why robots? Robots have become a critical tool for both military and first responder teams who regularly face the threat of explosives.

Robots are routinely deployed to defuse explosive devices. And by doing so, the robots reduce risk to the lives of the bomb teams and regularly saves lives.

In traditional American rodeos, cowboys compete in events like tie-down roping, steer wrestling barrel racing as well as saddle and bareback bronc riding.

But the annual five-day Robot Rodeo features a very different series of challenges. In this rodeo, all the events involve defusing dangerous bombs under intense pressure.

The tenth Western National Robot Rodeo and Capability Exercise at Sandia National Laboratories in partnership with Los Alamos National Labs is now open for would-be contenders to join the roster.

What sort of bots compete?

The event prepares both humans and robots on the bomb squad teams for the things they may face on the job.

Ten events test the mettle of the bots in realistic scenarios they would face in the real world. And every year, the events in the rodeo change and get harder.

In the last Robot Rodeo, nine teams practiced emergency scenarios where robots save human lives.

The teams included the Albuquerque Police Department, Los Alamos Police Department, Doña Ana County Sherriff’s Office, and the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office from California.

From the military, Kirtland Air Force Base Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team, Holloman Air Force Base Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team two U.S. Army Teams from Fort Carson, Colorado, and a team from the British army.

The rodeo events?

The robots are challenged with detailed environments that replicate realistic scenarios. The rodeo means that the robots and their human teams can practice their dangerous work, but in a low risk competitive environment way.

Robots have to tackle tough tasks like a vehicle-borne IED and an IED snared by barbed wire on a perimeter fence.

They may have to maneuver in a disaster scenario that forces them to maneuver through a realistic obstacle course and they may have to search tough locations like an airplane or arcade.

In the field, competing robots may have to locate and diagnose a “sick” robot. The bomb squad teams, humans and bots, may need to work together to tackle emergency medical triage for humans as well.

They have to deal with scenes they could encounter on the job like a mobile drug lab. Or a smoke-filled structure with a bomb inside where the robot and his team need to prove they can navigate and successfully work in a smoke filled building.

In many rodeos, the robots have had to demonstrate proficiency at night ops and live fire maneuvers.

The human also must compete with his or her robot and demonstrate operator proficiency.

At the last rodeo, unmanned aerial vehicles, also called drones, made their debut at the competition. It will be interesting to see how they play a role in future events.

Robots are already in training to compete in the 10th Robot Rodeo.

Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.