Students at a local school, not far from the heavily automated plant destroying chemical weapons, are learning that robots come in all shapes and sizes.
“I think this will really help them to see what their small-scale project is going to look like and put it into a real-world context,” said Todd Seip, teacher, Pleasant View Middle School.
Seip’s class toured the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant’s nearby training facility and watched a life-size, working Projectile/Mortar Disassembly system maneuver empty test munitions through the enhanced reconfiguration process used at the real plant.
A day earlier, in his classroom – half computer lab, half industrial arts shop – Seip oversaw a demonstration by his seventh-graders as they ran small LEGO robots they had programmed themselves through tabletop mazes drawn on large sheets of paper, before shifting gears to teach the autonomous vehicles parallel-parking skills.
He said seeing the gauntlet of automated systems going through the motions of dismantling inert munitions was a valuable experience for the students.
“We talk and discuss how mechanical precision is not just important but can be vital to the safety of the workers and machines being used,” Seip said. “Although our student-assembled LEGO EV3 robots are precise to the millimeter in some of our robotic challenges, the robotics machinery (in the plant) obviously needs to be even more precise.”
Automated systems help the Pueblo plant safely destroy Colorado’s portion of the remaining United States chemical weapons stockpile. The Projectile/Mortar Disassembly system dismantles munitions in the Explosion Containment Rooms of the Enhanced Reconfiguration Building. Automated Guided Vehicles carry the munitions to the Agent Processing Building, where a Munitions Washout System drains mustard agent to be eliminated through a process known as neutralization followed by biotreatment. The metal shells get recycled, and the leftover chemicals are shipped to approved waste treatment facilities.
Tom Bailey, training specialist, PCAPP, said the training facility helps reinforce STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – principles that are so important today.
“If this is a positive influence in our community, we’re happy for it,” he said. “But really, I think, at the end of the day the people who come and visit us walk away with a clear understanding of the engineering, the science and the physical aspects of the robotics that it takes to do what we do here.”
Before visiting the training site, Seip said, the students expected its large robots to be complicated and hard to program. Instead, they noted that the control program they saw in action was simpler in some ways than what they used to teach their automated maze runners and parallel parkers.
Seip said teachers at Pleasant View this winter will coordinate on a project for their sixth-graders based on the early 20th century, and he will focus on science and technological advancements during World War I, in part using fact sheets provided by PCAPP. “One of the areas we will cover is warfare and chemical warfare,” he said. “That will lead to talk of chemical agents and how they were used, then subsequently banned. And now that they are banned, how do we destroy them without harming our environment?”