Recently in Rhode Island, the Office of the State Fire Marshal was called in by local law enforcement to examine a possible pipe bomb. Once the area was secured and the public was at a safe distance, the bomb squad went to work assessing the device. When they determined that it was indeed a live pipe bomb, loaded with explosives and deadly shrapnel, the responders used a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) developed tool called Power Hawk to carefully disable (or “render safe”) the bomb.
Like many other bomb squad tools, Power Hawk enabled the bomb technicians to be at a safe distance from the explosive device during the procedure. However, what makes Power Hawk so special is that the bomb itself was not destroyed while being rendered safe. Since the components were left intact, the authorities were able to recover valuable forensic evidence that helped lead law enforcement to the arrest of the bomber.
Pipe bombs are the most commonly used Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) on American soil. Like the one used in Rhode Island, pipe bombs get their name from the casing of choice. Usually this means a section of steel water pipe. The inside of the pipe is packed with an easy-to-acquire explosive and often nails, bolts or other metal objects that will serve as shrapnel. The ends of the pipe are then sealed. When ignited, pressure builds up within the sealed pipe until it rips apart the casing, and that’s what makes the weapon so devastating. Making things worse, due to the nature of the explosive mixtures used in them, pipe bombs are notoriously unstable and prone to premature detonation. This can happen from seemingly innocent events that initiate internal pressure, friction, static electricity or other forces.
Unfortunately, the science and construction behind the development of IEDs is constantly evolving and will continue to threaten lives and property. However, S&T is dedicated to defeating that threat through the Response and Defeat Operations Support (REDOP) program, which leads the charge in helping to ensure public safety bomb technicians have the tools and solutions to do their jobs faster and safer.
Power Hawk was originally developed as a miniature version of the very well-known “Jaws of Life” rescue tool that firefighters have been using to free trapped victims from car crashes and other dangerous situations for the last fifty years. However, several years ago, REDOPS discovered that both the Michigan State Police (MSP) and the New Jersey State Police were using Power Hawk tools on pipe bombs with great success. Under a branch of REDOPS called RAPID (Research and Prototyping IED Defeat) the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) led independent testing, assessment and validation of Power Hawk’s IED defeat capabilities. The Power Hawk passed with flying colors. Subsequently, REDOPS and the FBI wrote a report detailing exactly how to use Power Hawk to defeat pipe bombs. That report was disseminated to all SLBSs across the county, and Power Hawk has been widely used ever since.
The Power Hawk has two major component parts to it: an extremely powerful hydraulic engine and a pair of scissor-like jaws. The jaws are studded with metal teeth that clamp down and hold the pipe bomb steady. One of the reasons Power Hawk is so effective at rendering pipe bombs safe is that when the jaws engage, they slowly and smoothly crush the pipe. This causes small fractures that release pressure inside the pipe and prevent the buildup of gases that would power an explosion.
Overall, the tool is about two-and-a-half feet long and weighs about 40 pounds. Power Hawk is smaller and lighter than its big brother used in rescues, but it is still heavy and somewhat cumbersome. This is especially true for bomb technicians working with the added physical stress of wearing an 80-pound Kevlar bomb suit.
Precision and control are obviously important when dealing with explosives. The original solution to the awkward weight issue presented by the Power Hawk was to attach it to a large robot. However, this puts a very expensive robot at risk when rendering safe an IED. It also further limited the use of the Power Hawk to well-funded teams with larger robots.
To overcome this hurdle, MSP bomb squad technicians figured out another ingenious solution. Using components that were inexpensive and easily found in commercial stores, the techs constructed a mobile mounting stand to which Power Hawk can be attached. The stand (similar to a 2-wheel furniture moving dolly) can be pulled by a relatively small and inexpensive robot. Once affixed, the robot can then transport Power Hawk to the IED. Alternatively, Power Hawk can be placed in a safe area and the pipe bomb can be delivered to Power Hawk. Either way, this cost-conscious workaround means that Power Hawk can be used by even more bomb squads around the country.