Thanks to These Robots We Can Now Safely Recycle Munitions

The metals and materials can now complete their transition from weapons of war to useful items that can benefit society.

Special Collections: REDUCE REUSE RECYCLE


(realist2000 /

Turning swords into plowshares by recycling and repurposing weapons is not a new concept, but it has recently become a reality due to a team of robots developed by Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) to disassemble munitions so that they can be safely recycled.

It has not been easy to decommission and dispose of obsolete or outdated munitions. The choices have been to bury them deep in the earth, explode them, burn them, or dump them in the oceans. Most of these have a significant cost to the environment and to the people handling them. There was no good solution until now.

Thanks to a nine-robot automated system that was built by SNL, more than 700,000 Multiple Launch Rocket systems used by the US and its allies during the cold war have been demilitarized by the US Army so far.

“This is by far the most complex, automated robotic demilitarization system that Sandia has built in the last 20 years,” said computer scientist Bill Prentice, Sandia’s software lead for the project. “This is exactly the kind of thing to use robotics for — to get humans out of harm’s way. Let the automation of robots do what they do well, and have humans make advanced decisions on safety.”

The system is demilitarizing the outdated weapons that have been stockpiled in storage and now allows the aluminum, steel, and copper used in the munitions to be recycled; something that couldn't be done before. The automatic robots can demilitarize up to 12 warheads per 8-hour shift.

Humans still oversee the operations, run the advanced robotics systems, and watch the process on live feeds in the control room. A form of artificial intelligence detects any issues and alerts the human handlers of any problems.

"Part of the challenge is when you demilitarize warheads like this, you're working on munitions that are 10, 20, 30 years old," said Prentice. "You test 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, such as grenades being stuck together during removal."

All of the system's robots are commercial robots that were customized and programmed by Sandia engineers to do specific tasks as part of the process to separate and defuse weapons. It took three years to program the robots and test the system before it was put into use.

“I’d say that what Sandia really brought to the table was an integrated, small team that took a blank sheet of paper and made a nine-robot automated system with 55 cameras, hundreds of sensors and a lot of exceptional designs, enabling us to deliver a reliable system to the Army that’s been safe,” said project lead Walt Wapman.

The robotic system is a safe and efficient way to demilitarize dangerous weapons and to recycle the materials that they were made of. If the recycled metals are repurposed into nonmilitary items, then the transition from weapons of war to useful items that can benefit society will be complete.

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