The U.S. Army is using a team of nine robots developed by a nuclear weapons lab to dismantle aging artillery rockets. The robots accomplish the job without endangering humans in the potentially hazardous process. In operation since May 2018, the team has already processed 700,000 of the small, baseball-sized submunitions, hundreds of which are encased in a typical rocket warhead.
During the 2000s, a movement began to ban cluster bomb-type munitions. Cluster munitions typically consist of a bomb or rocket warhead packed with hundreds of small, grenade-sized explosive bomblets. The bombs or rockets release their payloads above a target, showering the area below with bomblets. This vastly increases the area a single weapon can damage targets in, and those bomblets that don’t explode can act as mines later.
Unfortunately many of the bomblets in such weapons later went on to kill and maim civilians. The , signed by 120 countries, aims to eventually ban their stockpiling and use. The U.S. is not a signatory to the Convention but has been gradually destroying its stocks of the weapons all the same.
One of the weapons the U.S. is eliminating inventories of is the M26 Multiple Launch Rocket System warhead and the . The U.S. Army and Sandia labs built a team of nine commercially available robots and taught them how to open up the warhead and extract the bomblets. The explosive charges in the bomblets are neutralized and the robots can then go on to turn the weapons into steel, aluminum, and copper scrap.
According to Sandia National Laboratories, a Department of Energy funded research center that that developed the system, it can dismantle up to 21 warheads per eight hour shift. Each M26 rocket warhead carries 644 M77 bomblets, for a total of 13,524 bomblets neutralized per shift. Sandia describes the robotic disassembly system as follows:
The system is organized into nine “cells.” The first cell is the weapons disassembly system where warheads are cut into separate foam pack sections. The foam packs filled with grenades are then delivered to cells two and three where the grenades are removed from the foam packs. From there, individual grenades are delivered to cells four through nine where the fuses are detached. Once the fuses are detached, the munitions have been disarmed.
Disarmed or not, the munitions still have explosives in them. The Army describes removing the explosives as a thermal-closed disposal process” that “thermally treats energetics in the grenades and fuses, resulting in empty grenade bodies and copper cones.”
The system, part of the Multiple Launch Rocket System Recycle Facility is located at Anniston Army Depot, Alabama. The Army had thousands--if not tens of thousands--of M26 warheads lying around, so the robot system will likely be busy for years to come. The system cost $34 million to develop and get running, but the Army believes that automating the entire process will be safer and save taxpayers money over the life of the program.