Robotics students at Dodge City Middle School are learning to assemble and program sophisticated electronics with a high-tech version of a popular construction toy.

Gifted Facilitator and robotics instructor Brian Steib said most of the classes are building a LEGO Mindstorm product called Sk3tchbots to build units with microcomputers, interactive servos, and interchangeable sensors that students must configure to cause a physical reaction from the machine.

The robots have software interfaces that allow customizable programming to make the robots respond to their environment. They can move or shift according to color sensing systems and infrared, touch senors and radar systems.

The robots are controlled by a software that feature programming blocks that are combined in various ways to instruct the robot's reactions.

Some of the robotics classes at DCMS as well as Comanche Middle School will participate in a robotics competition April 16 at Fort Hays State University.

Students will build a robot and program it to perform one of five events. Competitors can: test the precision movement of their robots by programming it to intelligently follow a line; use M&Ms to display their robot's ability to distinguish colors; traverse the rungs of a six-foot ladder.

Steib said a less sophisticated event is the most popular among students.

"The one they always like is the sumo," Steib said. "They build the robots and program them to basically get into an octagon and try to push other robots out. It's set up tournament style so you keep on going until you have a champion.

"It's the highlight of the day and they always do it last because of that. It's a lot of fun," Steib said.

Wednesday robotics students were able to experience some of the applied technology and electronic capabilities of the Dodge City Police Department.

Lt. Jeff Mooradian, commander of the DCPD Special Operations Response Team, and officer Shane Harris came to the school and demonstrated the department's robot, Walter.

Walter stands for Wicked All-Terrain Lightweight Tactical Emergency Robot.

"It took 10 SORT guys two hours to come up with that one," Mooradian said.

Walter has five cameras that feed live video back to a remote operator. The unit is equipped with two-way communications so authorities can both listen and speak to a subject without an officer having to get close enough to be injured.

"It's safer to send Walter into a hot zone than a live operator," Mooradian said.

Walter sports infrared sensors, an extendable arm with a fully-functional claw that can open doors, and tracks that can climb stairs and hills.

Mooradian said Walter is not used to handle bombs but the unit enables officers to get a closer look at suspicious packages and better secure situations prior to a bomb squad team arrival.  

Walter was purchased in 2013 with Homeland Security Regional grant funds and has been deployed in numerous operation outside Dodge City. The department has assisted the KBI and FBI as well as authorities from across the area.

"It's been really good for us and really good for the area," Mooradian said. "They know we are here if they need us."

Steib said the demonstration allows students to see large-scale applications of the systems they are learning.

"They'll have a little extra motivation when they go back and start working on their own robots," he said.

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