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Robotics system allows US Army to recycle rocket munitions

The US Army has successfully demilitarised more than 700 000 submunitions of multiple rocket launchers. How? With the help of a hi-tech robotics system built and programmed by Sandia National Laboratories.

The automated solution features nine different robotics cells as well as 55 cameras and hundreds of sensors. Sandia engineers say this technology can process as much as 21 warheads per eight-hour shift. This is no small feat considering each warhead contains some 644 grenades.

The Army can now recycle the rockets’ aluminum warhead skin, steel grenade bodies and copper. As a result, the system safely reduces the stockpile of rocket munitions that have long been in storage.

Out of harm’s way

‘This is by far the most complex, automated robotic demilitarisation system that Sandia has built in the last 20 years,’ comments computer scientist Bill Prentice, Sandia software lead for the project. ‘This is exactly the kind of thing to use robotics for — to get humans out of harm’s way.’

He underlines that humans still get to make advanced decisions on safety. ‘They learn to run the advanced robotics system and watch the process on live feeds in a control room,’ Prentice explains. Artificial intelligence-driven computer vision can detect abnormalities and alert operators who determine if there is a safety concern.

In pristine condition?

A major challenge in handling warheads is the age of its munitions. This can differ from ten to thirty years, according to Prentice. ‘You may think you are testing on inert munitions that are in pristine condition. But when you start cutting apart warheads and looking at live grenades, they might have some environmental effects that cause process abnormalities.’ This includes grenades being stuck together during removal.

This recycling project was funded and managed through the Department of Defense. The US Army-owned system is located at the Multiple Launch Rocket System Recycle Facility in Alabama. The special facility was constructed in 2010.

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