Servo Magazine ( July 2018 )

Massachusetts Army National Guard Takes the Lead with the Urban Search & Rescue Competition

By Cody White    View In Digital Edition  

Providing students with hands-on robotics experience opens doors to their future. Strengthening STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) skills benefits all communities by giving today’s youth the knowledge they will need to tackle tomorrow’s issues. Unfortunately, not all schools have the resources to provide these experiences.

Now, schools in Massachusetts have a new ally in delivering these opportunities: the Massachusetts Army National Guard.

The Guard had long noted a hunger for STEM resources. Over the years, the Guard has partnered with several education organizations in its effort to attract talented, technically minded young people. It was through a partnership with SkillsUSA® that the Massachusetts Army National Guard became aware of a perfect opportunity to help schools meet their needs: Robotics Urban Search & Rescue.

IN 2012, SkillsUSA added Robotics: Urban Search & Rescue (USAR). Originally proposed by Pitsco Education, the event has grown into an official national event.

USAR is an open-platform robotics engineering competition where real world robotics engineering, building, and operating skills are applied.

In addition to proposing and supporting this event at the state and national level, Pitsco also created a TETRIX set just for the event so competitors get the specialized items and a range of robotics components needed to develop a unique robot that can successfully complete the challenge.

Any manufacturer of robotics parts or even a team’s own fabricated parts are allowed. They just have to be sure to reference the Robotics: Urban Search & Rescue Technical Standards for details on the number of servos, motors, overall size limitations, and so forth that are allowed for competition bots.

Pitsco also provides the challenge course materials and offers training for event chairs and judges.

SkillsUSA ( is a partnership of students, teachers and industry working together to ensure America has a skilled workforce. SkillsUSA helps each student excel. They provide educational programs, events, and competitions that support career and technical education (CTE) in the nation’s classrooms.

The SkillsUSA Framework illustrates how students fulfill the mission of the organization “to empower members to become world-class workers, leaders, and responsible American citizens.”

What the Framework Does

  • Provides a common language for students to articulate what they gain from SkillsUSA participation to employers, school administrators, parents, and other students.
  • Assesses student skill development along a learning continuum of awareness, demonstration, and mastery.
  • Creates a vision for SkillsUSA programs at the local, state, and national levels to ensure quality student-led experiences that build skills in all members.

Why the Framework Works

  • Empowers every student to achieve career success.
  • Delivers a skill set demanded by business and industry but lacking in many employees today.
  • Ensures that every student member receives a consistent and specific skill set.

In this robotics competition (created and sponsored by Pitsco Education), teams of students design and operate remote controlled robots through simulated disaster areas, seeking hidden explosives and disposing of them. One point of interest was the overlap with the Guard’s expertise. It maintains multiple explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams and works with bomb squads in state law enforcement agencies.

What exactly is the Robotics: Urban Search & Rescue?

Here’s the scenario: Police receive a tip about a bomb threat in a nearby neighborhood. The neighborhood is evacuated, and now it’s time for the bomb squad to investigate. One tool the squad relies on is a robot designed to locate, neutralize, move, and dispose of the bomb.

This happens almost every day somewhere in the country, so the Robotics: Urban Search & Rescue event offered by SkillsUSA gives high school and college students the real life hurdle creating a mobile robot that can navigate and remove explosive materials or ordnances in a simulated environment. Each robot is built by a two-member team, and the teams are judged on five different elements — not just their performance on a timed course.

The purpose behind the challenge is clear. The demand for designers, skilled technicians, and manufacturing workers who are fluent in mechanical design and electrical systems, and highly skilled in troubleshooting and maintenance of robotic systems is projected to grow. The current generation of students is expected to take artificial intelligence and robotics into the evolving world of emergency services, finding new ways to help trained personnel react more quickly and effectively.

It is vital that our future labor force be on the leading edge of current and emerging technologies, and possess the technical and team skills necessary to design, manufacture, maintain, and operate this life-saving robotic equipment.

The two-member team builds its robot and arm mechanism prior to the competition and then (during the competition) remotely operates the robot, which should be capable of locating, grabbing, and moving simulated ordnances on the challenge course. This remotely operated vehicle (ROV) must traverse the course, locate the ordnances, secure them, and then properly dispose of them. Each team will perform one round of competition consisting of a time-limited mission to locate and dispose of the two ordnances.

During the mission, each team must complete several procedures specified in the rules provided at the event. The mission is limited to six minutes. Each two-member team works from a command center to remotely operate its robot to carry out the mission.

The command center is equipped with a monitor displaying the video feed from an onboard wireless camera system attached to the robot. The robot begins the challenge course from a starting point. The timed mission starts when the robot begins to move and ends when the robot drops the last ordnance into the containment unit, or if time runs out.

“Urban Search & Rescue plays right into our mission,” said Sergeant First Class Geoffrey Allen of the Guard’s recruiting and retention battalion. “You can easily bridge the gap between the robotics the students use and what we would use in a real world scenario for our own search-and-rescue missions.”

As of 2018, the Massachusetts Army National Guard is taking the lead with Urban Search & Rescue in the state. The Guard is providing dedicated trailers fitted with competition courses for district and state leadership meets for SkillsUSA and is running the competitions. But that isn’t all.

To increase STEM access, the organization is also bringing its trailers to schools that lack resources to become involved in the competition.


The program has had only a short run, but the interest level from schools has been fantastic. The traveling trailers have been booked week after week.

Electronics instructor, Lisa Roy expressed the enthusiasm that many teachers have felt when she commented, “The Urban Search and Rescue robot event, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Army National Guard, was an amazing day for the students of Greater Lowell Technical High School.

Students learned team-building, critical thinking, and problem-solving. They also provided the students with the opportunity to see the skills they have learned in school used in a real world environment for search and rescue. Working with the National Guard made the event even better for the students and staff.”

Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, the experience the Guard provides is tailored to the wishes of the school. Are teachers looking to introduce complex concepts such as programming and construction, or are they looking to give students a taste for competition? Either way, the Guard is happy to lend a hand.

The team can roll in with prebuilt robots and an obstacle course and host a quick competition. Students have a blast navigating the robots remotely from a command center with the aid of a spotter at the course. Or, if a teacher wishes, the Guard can provide a more in-depth experience – presenting a whole class on robotics and search and rescue. The mobile trailers and the expertise the Guard offers are key to this versatility.


Through the program, students are exposed to the National Guard and its mission to serve community and country. Students interested in robotics or disaster relief can form a vision of their career path based on what they experience. For the Guard members leading the Urban Search & Rescue program, the reward is also personal.

Battalion Commander Lieutenant Eric J. Dinoto shared his own story:

“I was born and raised here in Massachusetts and have two great kids attending our local high school, so to say that I am invested in enhancing our children’s education is an understatement. The Massachusetts Army National Guard is the original community-based organization, and as citizen-soldiers we pride ourselves on giving back to our local communities.”

Guard units across the country have noticed the success of the Massachusetts program and the extraordinary STEM opportunity it offers for the state.

“Some of these schools just don’t have the ability to purchase things of this scale on their own,” said Sergeant Allen.

“To give them access to that on our site — it’s a win-win for them. We have a great time doing it, and it has brought us into a lot of schools that really want STEM access.”  SV

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