Barnes Air National Guard Base, 104 Fighter Wing - Westfield, Mass --
On the morning of Feb. 18, eight 104th FW kids witnessed an invasion of robots to Barnes Air National Guard Base, Mass. A first time event for the 104th FW, the robotic invasion was actually a workshop that gave military kids, ranging in ages from 11 to 16, the opportunity to assemble, program and race their individually created robots. Offered by Ms. Gretchen May, 4-H Youth Development Educator at the University of Massachusetts, and organized by Sandy Wakefield, Airmen and Family Program Manager, the robotics instruction was given by volunteer members of the Pioneer Valley Robotics 4-H Club. The 4-H Robotics Club volunteers were kids, also ranging in age from about 11 to 16, led by their club leader Brian Lucia.
The military kids' morning began with a demonstration by Master Sgt. Greg Pauli, 104th FW Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD). Assembled inside the Pioneer NCO Club, Pauli gave the kids' hands-on time with an Air Force robot - the EOD's Remote Operated Neutralization (RONS) system. Used for a variety of different potentially hazardous environments, RONS replaces a robot for a person in the presence of life-threatening situations, such as chemical threats and explosive devices.
Although RONS is a somewhat outdated 1980's vintage robot (and due for retirement), it was personally used by Pauli in Iraq in early 2000. It weighs over 600 pounds, stands five feet high and about three feet wide. For the robotics class, Pauli made the extra effort of replacing a metal plate with glass, so the kids could see the "brain" of the robot, including the PC board, mechanical/electronic servos and relays. Pauli gave all the kids an opportunity to use the switchbox to control the robot; RONS can move 360 degrees and can pickup munitions that weigh up to 120 pounds.
Newer generations of RONS include the F6 Robot, Talon Robot, Pacbot Robot; each of these is considerably more advanced, "lighter, smaller, fast more capable robots," said Pauli. "I wanted to show the kids our robot RONS, because I knew the kids would find it interesting and RONS would help them think about their futures. Robotics knowledge bridges to diverse professions - such as machining, programming and troubleshooting." Pauli has saved many lives in combat in his EOD role and is humbly the recipient of two Bronze Stars for his heroism.
After meeting RONS, the military kids moved on to create their own robots, made from kits donated by Lego. Called the NXT, the Lego robots are built with Lego Technic parts. The NXT is a powerful robotics platform and has unlimited possibilities. The 'brick,' a microprocessor that is programmed with the computer, uses sensors and motors to interact with the physical world. These computers have several programming environments of varying difficulties; and both visual and code languages.
"The kids seemed to have a wonderful time with the robots," said Sandra Wakefield.
"The class was just long enough to give the kids a good taste of robot engineering...leaving them with a thirst to learn more." The kids spent about two hours assembling the robots and about fifteen minutes racing them. "The day was a big hit," said Wakefield, "thanks to Gretchen May, Master Sgt. Pauli, Brian Lucia and the 4-H volunteers." For more information on the 4-H Club and Robotics Club, visit: http://www.pioneervalleyrobotics.com/