Bomb-defusing robot gets tweaked at Tech Center mechatronics lab

Program helps students get early start on college and careers

Mechatronics instructor Travis Raspotnik and Rockford High School senior Jared Rathburn with the Packbot, a bomb-defusing robot that’s on loan from the Kent County Sheriff’s Department

It’s not your average high school shop project. At the Kent Career Tech Center mechatronics lab, senior Jared Rathburn is modifying a bomb-defusing robot.

About the size of a backpack, the rubber-treaded “Packbot” is able to scoot across a room or field, open a door and pick up an object with a hand-sized claw. Originally built to defuse improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the sturdy little vehicle is now a learning tool for Jared’s expanding robotic skills. On loan to the Tech Center, It’s one of two robots the Kent County Sheriff’s Department acquired from the military after they were decommissioned.

Rockford High School senior Jared Rathburn studies mechatronics at Kent ISD’s Kent Career Tech Center

“They want to get more range out of it,” says Jared, who is learning how the robot’s antenna system works to beam camera images from its operators, and process instructions from a handheld controller that’s similar to a video-game controller.  The robot’s manufacturer also makes autonomous vacuum cleaners for home consumers, he notes.

The Rockford High School student spends a couple of hours most afternoons learning advanced robotics skills at the mechatronics lab. When they are not working on the Packbot, Jared and his classmates are designing and programming electronic systems that control electric motors, one of the basic skills they’ll need when they build their own robots.

Jared also is a member of Rockford’s robotics team, which competes against 500 high school teams in Michigan. If they win at the state level, they’ll go on to compete against international high school teams. During the heart of the just-completed six-week contest, Jared says team members devoted up to 48 hours a week on their entry.

Rockford High School senior Jared Rathburn is researching ways to extend the range on the Packbot, a bomb-defusing robot that’s on loan from the Kent County Sheriff’s Department

Gearing Up for College

After graduation, Jared says he is headed to Michigan Technological University in Houghton, where he plans to study mechanical engineering. But for now, he’s getting a head start under the tutelage of Travis Raspotnik, the mechatronics instructor at the Tech Center.

Now in his second year there,Jared says the mechatronics program is giving him a jump on the courses he will take at MTU. “Colleges are amazed at how far we get,” he says.

Raspotnik says his students get a taste of where manufacturers are headed and what skills they need from their future employees. They bring in manufacturers to talk to students and take students out to their shop floors to show them where their jobs are being created.

While most of the mechatronics students go on to college, some also have gained skills that make them more employable after high school.  Several graduates have gone on to programming jobs with local automotive suppliers who use robots, Raspotnik says.

Raspotnik, who joined the Tech Center faculty six years ago, is now one of two instructors in the mechatronics department. The program currently has 42 first-year students and 13 in their second year.

James Harger
James Harger reported on West Michigan's economy, courts and politics for The Grand Rapids Press and Mlive.com for more than 37 years. He also is employed as Servanthood Leader at Immanuel Lutheran Church in downtown Grand Rapids. A graduate of Central Michigan University, he also has worked for publications in Holland, Mount Pleasant and Lansing. He is married to Lisa and has one daughter, who lives in Ann Arbor. Read James' full bio.

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