High-tech lunch

Eisenhower students test out US Army bomb disposal robot

Eisenhower Middle High School seventh-grader Kamden Ferrand operates the controls of a U.S. Army bomb disposal robot.

There were no bombs at Eisenhower Middle High School late last week, but there was a bomb-disposal robot.

Five U.S. Army sergeants brought the Talon explosive ordnance disposal robot to Eisenhower and showed it off during lunch.

The Talon has been in use for explosive disposal since the late 1990s, Sgt. Charles Smith said.

A few students each lunch period had the opportunity to drive the $180,000 robot after a brief training session from either Smith or Sgt. Richard Sullins — the “asset guys” out of Fort Knox, Ky.

There were only four controls that the students needed to worry about — drive, arm up and down, arm extend and retract, and jaws open and close. Smith said newer equipment is operated using Xbox controls — with the expectation that young operators will be familiar with the setup and will only have to know what each control does.

The equipment was in bomb disposal configuration on Thursday, Smith said, but can also be set up for surveillance, search and rescue, or even weaponized.

When personnel find a suspicious object that may be an explosive, the Talon and its operators go to work.

“With this, sometimes we can disarm it, we can carry another explosive out to it, or, if all else fails, we can pick it up and carry it out of the way,” Smith said.

After an introduction at the start of each lunch period, one of the sergeants placed a reward object on top of a traffic cone about 15 feet away from the robot’s starting point. “If you can grab it, pick it up, and bring it back to you, it’s yours,” Sgt, 1st Class John Navarette said.

Most of the students earned the reward.

“It was hard, but it was awesome,” seventh-grader Spencer Wynn said.

“It was easier than I thought,” senior Samantha Shelton said. “Turning was a little difficult.”

Sullins explained that depth perception was one of the major challenges of using the robot. The four cameras — some are equipped with seven and satellite links — could only show so much.

There were other ways to go home with Army gear, but there were no freebies.

Students who wanted lanyards, dongles, moisture-wicking shirts, water bottles, or bluetooth speakers could earn them. Based on their ages and the items they wanted, students could do a number of push-ups or sit-ups assigned by the recruiters — Navarette and Staff Sgt. Mark Taylor — out of Bradford.

1st Sgt. Dustin Denney, who is stationed in Clarion, gave students another option. Phyllis Wright of the League of Women Voters was accepting voter registrations just outside the cafeteria. Any 18-year-old students who registered would also receive some of the Army swag.

The goal of the event was to encourage students to pursue STEM — Science Technology Engineering and Math — careers as well as to help overcome some Army stereotypes. “Our first goal is to educate,” Denney said. “For every one combat job, we have six non-combat jobs. We have the STEM assets.”

Between school visits and the Clarion Autumn Leaf Festival, “we’ve had over 600 people in front of the robot this week,” Denney said.

The robot is a very tangible, memorable example of STEM, Secondary Guidance Counselor and U.S. Navy Veteran Chris Demorest said. “I can hand you STEM pamphlets until I’m blue in the face. This robot is awesome.”

Holding the event during lunch meant all students attended, but did not have to be pulled out of other classes.

“It’s hard to pull kids out of their core classes,” Demorest said. “This is the most bang your buck and the least intrusive.”

According to Smith, in a combat situation, the robot would be controlled from a safe distance of 200 meters to one half mile away. “The Talons are frequently damaged, but usually can be repaired.

“As long as you don’t kill the brain of the robot, you can blow and arm off, replace a track, and keep on trucking,” Smith said.

They don’t last forever.

“These units are typically destroyed after 200 to 300 hours,” he said. “This one has 1,460 operating hours. When I do my annual maintenance, they are surprised it’s still running.”

Smith said return on investment analyses have been run on the $180,000 units.

“For every one of these that is lost, it has saved the lives of five soldiers,” Smith said.