ELMA, Wash. – The ninth iteration of Raven’s Challenge was held June 2015, at the site of the abandoned Satsop nuclear power project near Elma, Washington. Raven’s Challenge is a training event designed to support the interoperability of military units, local law enforcement teams, and federal agencies within the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) community.
Brennan Phillips, an explosives enforcement officer with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), used his military and public safety experience, to help start Raven’s Challenge in 2004 as a National Guard training event.
“We were thinking about how best to do training, how to pool resources, because we had very minimal resources,” said Phillips.
Working together during this event provides both military and public safety groups with some unique training and new information or techniques from their counterparts in other agencies.
“Raven’s Challenge is an interoperability exercise between public safety bomb squads, both fire and police department based, and military EOD units,” said Phillips. “We bring those two groups together, to train, and learn from one another. By having come here and trained and exchanged information, they are better able to do their tasks on a day-to-day basis.”
The teams that participated in Raven’s Challenge continued to work on interoperability and scenario-based training lanes that aim to prepare the Soldiers and public safety officers for possible real-world scenarios. This year’s practice scenarios included response to a variety of explosive materials and situations such as a simulated bus attack, a bomber’s shack filled with bomb-making chemicals and explosives, and a possible threat in a populated area.
This year, the training event had a new lane that focused on building basic skills and fluidity of action using remotely-controlled bomb disposal robots in the field.
The newest addition to the training lanes was a portable standardized operator robot training facility, referred to by the operators as the “robot rodeo.”
Adam Jacoff, an expert in the field of robotics, helped to create the standardized training facility and was present at Raven’s Challenge to support the robot rodeo. Originally designed to help create standard mobility and function standards for robots, Jacoff recognized the importance of the training facility for the operators.
“The test methods are all agreed upon standard test methods that we have been using for some years now to shepherd through procurements, based on quantifiable capabilities data, but now we are turning that set of standards toward proficiency training to help evaluate, help assess, help focus operator training, both in public safety bomb squads, and the military,” said Jacoff.
The robot rodeo course helped the robot operators with the Washington Army National Guard’s 319th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company hone their basic and advanced movement skills.
“The idea is pretty simple, it is a circuit of basic skills that approach operational significance, but are really intended to be repeatable tasks, to get muscle memory, to get confidence in basic capabilities with maneuvering, situational awareness, mobility, and manipulator dexterity,” said Jacoff.
First Lt. Jake Jensen, 1st Platoon team leader with the 319th EOD Company, 741st Ordnance Battalion, said the robot rodeo provided a more individual-based training experience compared with the team focused training provided on the real-world scenario-based training lanes.
Jensen said he is relatively familiar with his robot, but found several of the obstacles to be quite challenging.
“I think (the tests) were effective, I think they did a good job of re-creating operational possibilities and operational hazards,” said Jensen.
The courses helped Jensen to be more creative with his movements and to push him to try new things.
“(The courses) were helpful in getting us over said obstacles in different ways that we may not have thought of before, such as going up the stairs backwards,” said Jensen. “We could try those (techniques) out a little bit, see if they work for us.”
Spc. Neil Goss, an EOD specialist with the 319th EOD Company, also practiced his robot maneuvering skills in the robot rodeo. Some of the skills he practiced included climbing stairs, opening doors, moving small and large objects, scanning the area using video cameras, and navigating around corners and other obstacles.
Goss said his experience during his deployment to Afghanistan, where he used a robot to disarm improvised explosive devices, had primarily been in outdoor or rural environments, but the course at Raven’s Challenge helped to prepare him to operate in an urban environment.
Goss said the course helped him to be more aware of the visual limitations of the robot.
“Sometimes you don’t really understand that there is stuff behind you when all of your cameras are facing forward. Some people can get really frustrated, but if you keep an eye on your surroundings, you will do pretty well,” said Goss.
Goss said that a well-equipped and well-trained robot operator can save many lives in any dangerous environment.
“A good robot operator can keep his team leader from going down range in a bomb suit, that is why I practice this hard,” said Goss.
Phillips said the participants in the exercise are what has made Raven’s Challenge such a successful training exercise and what keeps them all coming back year after year.
“It is an amazing exercise, because with a little bit of funding and a little bit of enthusiasm, we have all these great people from great agencies, they come together and they really make this thing run. Everybody clearly understands the vision, everybody clearly understands what we are trying to accomplish, we are trying to make ourselves as prepared as possible for what we see as one of the enemy’s most likely courses of action (IEDs).”