Sandia Bomb-Disabling Technology Protects Soldiers

sandia bomb

Soldiers' lives are being saved in Afghanistan by a remarkable device that disables bombs by cutting through them with a powerful, focused blade of water. The Stingray, developed by Sandia National Laboratories, was named one of Time magazine's 50 Best Inventions of the Year in 2010.

Although the concept behind the technology is not new, the Stingray is the first such device to overcome previous limitations, setting the stage for the Stingray to be deployed by the military to disable improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan, and by law enforcement agencies here at home. The Stingray disables bombs placed in a variety of environments, including on the roadside, in the trunks of vehicles, in propane tanks, and in backpacks.

The Stingray is made of clear plastic, and is about the size of a shoebox. It is filled with water, and contains a small controlled explosive charge. When the charge is detonated, it forces the water through a narrow concave opening, creating a high-velocity blade of water that can cut through and disable the bomb so that it does not explode. The water blade is powerful enough to slice through steel.

When researchers designed the Stingray, instead of using traditional explosive charges, which release energy equally in all directions, they used "shaped-charge" technology to mold the explosion so that it can create the water blade. This allows the Stingray to focus its power precisely where it is needed. One key advance over earlier technology is that Stingray is much less likely to detonate the bomb as it disables it. The water blade travels so quickly that it reaches and disrupts the bomb before it can detonate.

The Stingray has a second capability: When its explosive charge is detonated, instead of a water blade it can shoot out a high-velocity wall of water akin to a sledgehammer.

The Stingray is small, durable, and robust enough to be transported in a soldier's backpack. It can support 24 pounds of pressure, and can be dropped without breaking. The Stingray is also designed to be operated remotely using a robot, which can grab the Stingray without breaking it. Previous bomb-disablement tools that used water blades were not rigid enough to be gripped by a robot.

One of the Stingray's inventors, Steven Todd, had 21 years of experience in explosive ordnance disposal with the Navy before coming to Sandia. He saw the need for an improved fluid blade disablement tool, and formed a team that developed the Stingray through 50 design iterations and 10 lab prototypes.

TEAM Technologies of Albuquerque, New Mexico, acquired the rights to produce Stingray through a commercial patent licensing agreement with Sandia. TEAM further refined the device, including making it 30-percent better able to withstand compression.

In the licensing agreement, Sandia agreed to refrain from licensing Stingray to any other company for seven years. This provided TEAM with the legal position it needed to protect the capital investment necessary to bring Stingray to market. The agreement included milestones that, in an inherently uncertain environment, were designed to avoid jeopardizing the technology commercialization.

The Stingray commercialization was notable for its speed. Only seven months were needed from the time of the licensing agreement in January 2010 to the delivery of the first Stingrays to U.S. troops. Over 8,000 Stingrays have now been shipped and are saving lives in war zones. At the military's request, Sandia and TEAM collaborated to develop and commercialize a smaller version that fits in the pocket of a soldier's cargo pants. Three thousand of these units, called the Tactical Stingray, have been shipped. The military has also expressed interest in a super-size version three times larger than the original Stingray.

Law enforcement agencies are now using the Stingray for various applications, and the U.S. Forest Service is evaluating using it as a water axe to clear dead trees without emitting sparks, an important advantage in fire-prone forests.

For its development of the Stingray, Sandia was presented with an Excellence in Technology Transfer Award by the FLC in 2011.