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Visiting bomb squad officer gives students a look at robotics in action

Trooper First Class Matt Parrington of the New Hampshire State Police Bomb Squad demonstrated the uses and capabilities of one of their robots to a robotics class at Newfound Regional High School last week. (Photo by Donna Rhodes) (click for larger version)
June 06, 2018
BRISTOL — Students in Don White's robotics class at Newfound Regional High School were able to see real life applications for mechanical innovations that are designed not just for fun or convenience but safety, too.

Trooper First Class Matt Parrington of the New Hampshire State Police Bomb Squad was invited to by Bristol Police Chief James McIntire to meet with the class, introducing them to ways in which robotics can serve the community.

Parrington said there is more to a bomb squad then just dealing with terrorist actions, like the Boston Marathon bombings. His squad, one of two in the state, is actually kept busy with several types of incidents, from removing WWII artillery or old sticks of dynamite people to meth labs and stand offs between police SWAT teams and a person threatening harm to themselves or others.

"One of the other things we deal with are pipe bombs built by curious teens who don't realize how dangerous that is. We see a fair number of things like that," said Parrington.

The robot he brought to the demonstration, the smaller of two his squad has at their disposal, weighs 50-lbs., cost $165,000 and had a recent $27,000 communications upgrade. At first glance it's an unassuming flat, rectangular object with tank-like tracks on the sides. As Parrington soon demonstrated however, there is much more to it.

The robot is operated through a computer tablet that sends commands to the machine. Standard commands are pre-programmed to facilitate movement, but it can also send customized commands to adapt to each situation they face.

The robot has five cameras on board, allowing the operator to watch safely from a distance as it looks around a room, a corner or inside a door. It also has thermal imaging for night use. A robotic arm on board is capable of lifting objects, like a suspect package, which the machine can then drive over and place in a special detonation trailer.

Parrington explained use of the robot to investigate scenes can be much safer than sending an officer into a building. In the case of a standoff, it can also help de-escalate the situation. The squad can not only hear what's going on through a headset but talk to the suspect as well through the audio system on board.

A set of flippers along each side of the front of the tracks gives the robot the added capability of climbing stairs. While that is a slow, progressive movement, on flat ground Parrington said it can travel at 6 mph, which he demonstrated by racing it through a parking lot behind the school.

"A robot certainly can't do all we can do, but at the end of the day, it's a big help," said Parrington.

Like people, he told the students that all robots have strengths and weaknesses. One weakness he pointed out is depth perception, making it difficult to maneuver at times as they watch its progress through the cameras.

"Depth perception is a challenging component when operating a robot. If there's one thing you students can work on it's giving them better depth perception," he said.

The students also had plenty of questions for the trooper, such as how far it can range from the controller, which they learned is a quarter mile. They also asked how much it can lift. Parrington said the robot he had there that day can lift approximately 20 to 35 lbs., depending on the extension of the arm, but it can drag more.

"We have the other larger robot, though and as big as I am — I can add 80 pounds to my gear — and that one can still actually drag me," he said.

One student inquired if the cameras took still photos or could record video and Parrington said video capability was part of the upgrade and has been quite useful. They also asked how he got the job and he said he developed an interest in robots when he was in the Marines, where they also use robots like those the bomb squads now have here in the states. He joined the Keene Police Department when he got out of the service, then moved on to the State Police where he was selected for the squad when there was an opening.

And what does he do between calls?

"Practice, practice, practice," he told them.

He and his coworkers even use their robot to get their mail each day, relevant practice should they ever get a call for a mailbox bomb.

One other question really caught the trooper's attention though. He was asked if the front flippers could move independently of each other and his answer was no.

"That's something that would be really great if you can figure out how to do that," Parrington told him. "It would extremely useful."

McIntire also told the students that robotics programs in their school can open doors for them. He encouraged each of them to take their lessons seriously and see where it leads.

"You're on the cutting edge of this field of technology and you could land yourself a really great job in the future," the chief said.

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