While most rodeos involve cowboys and bull riding, Oklahoma City was the location for a different kind of rodeo — one with robots.

Last week, law enforcement officials from Oklahoma City, Edmond, Oklahoma County and Norman as well as the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, military and FBI were in attendance for an annual “robot rodeo” held at the State Fair Park in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma has seven FBI-certified bomb squads, according to the state government’s website. The seven squads are placed in nine locations, and each squad has received a standardized robot for use during bomb response incidents.

During the rodeo, the bomb technicians’ proficiency and skills at operating the robots was put to the test at six different stations that challenged them to complete specific tasks.

Oklahoma City Police Department Capt. Dexter Nelson said the bomb techs come from local, state and federal government, the military and the FBI. During the rodeo, the bomb squads networked with one another and with the robot manufacturers, and shared best practices for responding to the emergencies.

“The benefit of this event is we’ve got so many bomb techs at one location and working on different scenarios at the same time,” Nelson said. “So as [the participants] rotate from station to station completing the different obstacles, they communicate with each other, and then they see the problems that come up with the robots that they’re using in a particular scenario that they’re in.”

Nelson said by having representatives present from Tennessee-based Remotec — the manufacturer of the robot used by the Oklahoma City Police Department — they had the chance to explain some of the problems the robots were encountering in the field so that the company’s research and development team could take that feedback into account when making improvements.

One issue arose when the robot from Nelson’s police department needed to pick up two pipe bombs and take them safely to a disposal unit during one of the rodeo’s scenarios. Instead of picking up the pipe bombs one at a time, the department and the manufacturer — during the rodeo — fashioned a basket that enabled the robot to successfully carry both pipe bombs at the same time.

Nelson said Oklahoma City’s tactical team responds to incidents 10 to 12 times a year, and the department’s bomb squad responds to roughly four times as many situations. Staying prepared for bomb situations or other dangers that require assistance from the robots is crucial.

“We get a lot of suspicious item calls or suspicious package calls and in those instances we treat them as if they’re real. You have to,” Nelson said. “In a lot of ways, it’s a bomb or an explosive until the bomb tech says it’s not.”

The robot rodeo could have applications beyond bomb emergencies. The Oklahoma City Police Department would like to use its robot technology to assist with incidents involving stolen vehicles. Nelson said a stolen bulldozer in California and the damage caused by the perpetrator, as well as a stolen beer truck in Oklahoma City, shed light on the need to utilize robotics to stop large, stolen vehicles from causing damage. Nelson’s department didn’t use robots to stop the vehicle, but law enforcement departments would like to have that capability in case the need arises.

“You can’t wait for something to happen and then expect you have the tools to deal with it,” Nelson said. “You have to prepare for the future.”

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.