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UNF students repair robot for Clay County SWAT Team

Jacob Rodriguez

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Engineering students at UNF’s College of Computing, Engineering, and Construction returned a fully-functional robot to Clay County’s SWAT team this morning after making repairs. Electrical engineering seniors Alejandro Lepervanche and Elizabeth Voelkel and electrical engineering junior Eric Rutherford started working on “the unicorn” in mid-May for a few hours a day. Under the supervision of electrical engineering Professor Brian Kopp, the team managed to fix the robot for much less than the cost of a new robot.

Clay County Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant Donny Deas said that when “the unicorn,” which is the CCSO’s affectionate nickname for the robot, broke down recently, the sheriff’s office’s staff hadn’t a clue where to start on repairs. Their options, according to Lt. Deas, included purchasing a brand new robot for $500,000 or finding a local engineering program that would be interested in some hands-on learning.  UNF’s School of Engineering jumped at the opportunity.

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From left to right: Eric Rutherford, Alejandro Lepervanche, Lt. Donny Deas, Elizabeth Voelkel, and Dr. Brian Kopp. Photo by Annie Black

Lt. Deas explained that the opportunities for the students involved were two-fold. The students were able to work with technology from before they were born, as the robot was originally build in the 1970s, and learn how things were constructed in the past. Lepervanche, Voelkel, and Rutherford also were able to see how robotics have evolved, since the electrical engineering students deal with more modern robotics in their lab work.

Andy Eakin, Radio Unit Manager, said that the robot originally belonged to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and was used as a bomb disposal robot. CCSO never used it for that, instead using “the unicorn” for other common unmanned on-site jobs like delivering a secure phone line in a hostage situation, or as an unmanned camera.

Today, Rutherford and Voelkel explained the repair process while Lepervanche gave a demonstration of the robot’s functions. At first, the team thought something complex stopped the robot from moving. Upon further inspection, the team learned that there was an error in the interface between the robot’s motors and its wheels. The thing wouldn’t move. Eventually, the repairs came down to simply replacing a cable.

While the robot was on its way out of Building 50 to be loaded into a trailer for transport, the battery died. The repair team and the officers who came to collect the robot shared laughs over this, and soon after Lt. Deas presented Kobb, Lepervanche, Voelkel and Rutherford with patches from the Clay County SWAT Team. Not long after, the robot was loaded onto its trailer, ready for fieldwork.

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UNF students repair robot for Clay County SWAT Team