From Montana to Manizales

Although there are 3,750 miles as-the-crow-flies separating Kalispell, Montana from Manizales, Colombia, the two cities are connected like sisters, thanks to a partnership between Flathead Valley Community College (FVCC) and SENA Caldas.

Students and faculty members from FVCC and SENA Caldas’ Advanced Manufacturing and Electronics Technology programs are collaborating to build prototypes of a remote-controlled robot that could someday be used to safely detonate improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the Colombian countryside.

Over the past 30 years, leftist guerrilla groups have planted IEDs throughout the country to protect coca and cocaine transportation routes and growing areas. According to the Colombian government, 673 of Colombia’s 1,122 municipalities are contaminated with IEDs, covering approximately 20 square miles of land. Tragically, according to one estimate cited by NBC News, IEDs have killed or injured more than 11,500 combatants and civilians in Colombia since 1990.

Automin to the rescue. The brainchild of Alexander Londono and Carlos Chica, Automin is the name of the IED-detonating robot currently under development. Londono and Chica are instructors at SENA Caldas, a career and technical college in Manizales with a strong occupational trades focus.

In 2016, FVCC and SENA Caldas became acquainted through the 100,000 Strong in the Americas program, a public-private sector partnership between the U.S. Department of State, Partners of the Americas, and NAFSA: Association of International Educators to increase student exchange and training programs within the Americas. With the support of a grant from 100,000 Strong in the Americas, FVCC and SENA Caldas spent 2016 getting to know each other. Students and staff from both institutions had the opportunity to visit each other’s campuses and engage in collaborative projects to build renewable energy systems.

Along with wind turbines and solar panels, indelible friendships were built during that formative year. FVCC Manufacturing Instructor Harry Smith was among the cohort that spent two weeks in Colombia. Having never previously travelled to South America, Smith was unsure of what to expect.

“I was surprised by the camaraderie and how warm they were,” Smith said. “They just opened their homes to us. I made quick and fast friends.”

The experience made such an impact on Smith that he and his wife decided to vacation in Colombia in January of 2018. During his vacation, Smith spent a lot of time with his new friend Londono and was able to get an up-close and behind-the-scenes look at Automin. The idea for another collaborative project took root in Smith’s mind, and he and Londono were able to convince administrators at their respective institutions to put some resources toward making it official.

As Automin-1 nears completion at SENA Caldas, Automin-2 is in the early stages of construction at FVCC. With the support of an Enhancement Grant from the FVCC Foundation, Smith was able to purchase supplies for the project, including two Traxass remote-controlled vehicles that will serve as the robot’s mobile base. Some of Automin’s parts, including electronic components, will be manufactured on campus by staff and select, second-year students, all of whom have signed confidentiality clauses to protect intellectual property rights.

Smith estimates that Automin-2 will be completed in July of 2019. If all goes as planned, Automin-2 will join Automin-1 in the field soon after. Ultimately, Londono and Smith hope that the Automin design will be mass produced and serve as a lightweight, low-cost, and reliable tool to deploy in Colombia and potentially other nations around the world that are gravely affected by IEDs.

For more information about FVCC’s Advanced Manufacturing program, visit www.fvcc.edu/advanced-manufacturing.