May 26, 2018
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Young Lego fans learn robotics at Bangor camp

Andrew Neff | BDN
Andrew Neff | BDN
Maine Robotics Lego Camp at Bangor Parks and Recreation Department during Bangor Police Department bomb squad demonstration.
By Andrew Neff, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — Judging from the questions they asked members of the Bangor Police Department’s bomb squad Thursday, Wyatt Daigle and Nate Wilcox could very well be running the unit in another 15 years.

“They probably will be,” agreed Bangor Police Lt. Mark Hathaway, who along with Sgt. Paul Kenison, provided the highlight of Thursday’s session of the Maine Robotics Lego Camp at the Bangor Parks and Recreation Department. “Some of these kids probably know more about these robots than we do.”

The robots are the squad’s bomb detection, retrieval and disposal robots, which Kenison and Hathaway brought over for a demonstration in the back parking lot.

The 10 youths taking part in the sixth week-long camp of the summer in the Bangor-Orono area asked about everything from how much the robots cost to their weight, power supply, battery life, and controls.

One unit, which looks more like a children’s toy and resembles an axle with two all-terrain wheels and two antennas sticking out, is used for remote surveillance. The other is about 6 feet in length and looks more like the Mars Rover or an overgrown Erector Set vehicle with a long extending clamp grip controlled by an operator through 300 feet of fiber optic cable.

Both Wilcox and Daigle were building Lego robots powered by battery and computer packs with programs created on laptops and downloaded into memory modules that attach to the Lego robots and make them perform certain tasks or movements.

“I’ve learned a lot about programming and building,” said Daigle.

He said his dream job would be creating playsets for Lego.

“I think it’s really cool how you can take a lot of Legos and a program and adapt things,” added Daigle, a Bangor resident. “We’re working on using it with Bluetooth and seeing if we can get it to work remotely.”

It’s that kind of thinking that instructors such as Ben Goff and brother Sam encourage at the camps, which are held at six regional locations in Maine anywhere from four to six times a summer.

“These kids all know how to build Lego sets and stuff, so my main focus is to try and teach them how to work with and program computers to try to design the robots to do challenges autonomously,” said Ben Goff, who earned a computer science degree at the University of Maine.

This week’s camp for children ages 9-14 is one of the advanced ones that Maine Robotics, a nonprofit corporation promoting the sciences of engineering and computers, holds later in the summer. In all, Maine Robotics is holding 22 camps in 11 towns across the state this year.

“In the beginning camps, the tasks we assign them are easier,” Ben Goff explained. “These advanced ones are about getting them to not follow instructions and build the programs themselves, noticing a problem and figuring out a solution.”

Apparently he’s doing a good job, judging from the ease with which his students solved a maze challenge earlier in the week.

“The reason our maze is so long with a lot of challenges in it was the kids said it was too easy earlier in the week, so I was more than happy to make it tougher for them,” Goff said with a laugh.

Wilcox was encouraged to go to the camp, which usually runs from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for five weekdays, by a teacher.

“This is great. I’m just impressed that we’ve gotten this far in technology so that a robot’s movements are almost human,” said the 12-year-old from Brewer who is eyeing a career as a video game programmer or a robotics engineer. “I’m just impressed with that.”

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