Mom vs. Bomb
One engineer's robots are saving lives in war zones
PHOTO: Erika Larsen
On a Mission
Naomi Zirkind helps develop robots to combat explosive devices in war zones.
Start talking about explosives experts and the image that comes to mind is more James Bond than Jersey mom. Yet Naomi Zirkind—a soft-spoken mother of eight—is the lone woman and the only person with a doctorate on a seven-member military engineering team working on better ways to use robots to detect, inspect, and neutralize bombs. Since 2003, more than 330 explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) robots have been shipped to Iraq and Afghanistan, costing roughly US $150 000 each. These robots have saved countless lives,” says Staff Sergeant Isaac Allender, an EOD team leader who served in Iraq for eight months in 2004, both personally disarming bombs and supervising others. Allender now serves as a liaison between the field soldiers and Zirkind’s team of robot engineers.
”Our unit used robots in 120 runs . In the past, that would have been us putting on a bomb suit and walking to the site for the initial inspection,” he continues, noting that 11 robots were blown up by the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) favored by insurgents in Iraq.
There remains room for improvement on the robot front, however, Allender says, adding that ”we still have to walk down there to visually inspect the area for secondary and tertiary devices.”
And making those robots better is what Zirkind is all about. Working at the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Directorate at the U.S. Army’s Picatinny Arsenal, near Dover, N.J., Zirkind and her team study remote-controlled commercially available robots and repurpose them to disarm land mines and homemade explosives. The goal is simple: the more effective the robots are, the less likely soldiers are to have to risk their lives disarming bombs in person.
The team tests robots to gauge their effectiveness and speed in a variety of environments and terrains [see "Test Run"]. It develops better navigation tools and appendages that allow the robots to manipulate explosives with more dexterity. The group also works on improving electronic communications between robots and their handlers. These advances include using alternative radio frequencies and fiber-optic options, enhancing the clarity of remote-control display screens, and reducing the average weight of the robots, which has fallen from 180 kilograms to the 45- to 90-kg range. Soldiers with field experience serve as liaisons to the engineers, giving from-the-field context to frame the team’s ideas.
Zirkind and her team work in a military lab near Dover, N.J.
Working with the soldiers ”makes me take the work more personally,” says Zirkind. ”One soldier who worked in our division was redeployed to Iraq and was killed there while dealing with an IED,” she adds. ”Knowing that my work can save lives is a strong motivating force, but also knowing that lives are still being lost motivates me to put my best effort into my work.”
After getting her Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT in 1989, Zirkind—who’s originally from St. Paul, Minn.—spent 11 years as a full-time homemaker before landing part-time work as a biomedical engineering research associate at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, in Newark. She stopped working in 2003, when her youngest child was born, but reentered the workforce the following year, with the help of MIT’s Institute Career Assistance Network. It was a contact there who alerted her to the Picatinny Arsenal. In late 2004, Zirkind, who had worked on military projects in college, sent in her résumé; the following June, she joined a new robotics team there.
The job’s collaborative nature fosters increased creativity, and its heavy workload makes for little direct supervision, so team members must be self-starters and adept at time management. She and her colleagues ”like to understand how things work and then make them better,” Zirkind says. Despite the omnipresent security concerns of working on military projects—adhering to a strict system of document management and keeping mum about job details at dinner parties—Zirkind nonetheless finds it a pretty informal atmosphere.
The team wears a variety of dress styles, from ties to jeans, and its members have different educational backgrounds and nationalities. Two team members hold master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, three hold bachelor’s degrees in mechanical or electrical engineering, and one has a master’s in computer science, while Zirkind has a background in optics. The team includes Chinese, Korean, and Peruvian engineers. Collaborating with the team are several computer engineers from another division who write proprietary code.
Members also have the option of working flexible schedules—from the typical 8-hour day to compressed workweeks. Zirkind works 9-hour days Monday through Thursday and 4 hours on Friday.
She estimates that about 10 percent of her time is spent in the lab and in doing outdoor testing. She spends 5 percent of her time attending meetings. The remaining 85 percent is spent at her computer working on funding proposals and certification training, writing technical reports on testing results, discussing work matters with colleagues, and scouring the Internet for information about robots and devices that could be put to use by her team.
There is a dearth of women in her field, but Zirkind says, ”I’m used to it from MIT. It’s not that big of a deal, because we’re all just focusing on the mission and tasks. Plus, all the men are pretty different from each other. But I’m pretty introverted, which has its own negatives. I feel okay saying to a woman ’Let’s go to lunch,’ but not to a man. At meetings, the men often act very confident and feel comfortable talking at length. I’ll simply mention a particular point, rather than going on about it.”
Although the MIT alum who guided her to Picatinny was a man, she cites the Women in Optics group of the International Society for Optical Engineering (http://www.spie.org) as being particularly encouraging to her during her job search. ”It makes so much of a difference in keeping someone on track,” she says. ”I found it hard to get a mentor in school, and when I was looking for work, I felt so discouraged for such a long time. I don’t have any role models. I feel like I’m making a new path.”
”My advice to engineers is to be flexible about their career choices,” she adds. ”I never thought I’d work on EOD robots. I just liked learning and doing research, and kept going farther and farther.”
About the Author
SUSAN KARLIN is an award-winning journalist (firstname.lastname@example.org). She has contributed to The New York Times, Forbes, and Discover.