Williamburg native crafts USDA robots at VMI

A Williamsburg native is using robots to fight a small terror with wide-reaching consequences: cattle ticks.

The battle against cattle ticks has raged for years, but populations have multiplied since the early 1990s, according to a Virginia Military Institute news release. VMI won a contract to build a robot to target the blood-suckers, and tasked five cadets with building the machine this semester.

Edward Olbrych, who began his college career at Thomas Nelson Community College, led the cadets. He's set to graduate VMI in 2018.

"I really like these sorts of start-up type projects," Olbrych said. "I've always been interested in engineering and computers — the useful problems you can solve with that combination of skills, I find intriguing."

After teaching himself coding languages at home, TNCC is where Olbrych got his start in computer engineering, he said. He transferred to VMI for its electrical engineering program.

VMI was asked to design and build the rover for a project Old Dominion University was working on for the United States Department of Agriculture eradicating the cattle ticks in Texas.

Once cattle ticks find a host, they settle in for life. If enough attach to the cow, it can die from blood loss, the release stated. The issuse threatens Texas' expansive cattle and beef industry.

Affixed with large rubber tires, the cadets built the remote-controlled robot with the Texas landscape in mind. Two large wings on either side give the device a bat-like appearance. Ticks attach to cows as they walk by, so the robot simulates that motion. It brushes the wings against trees, bushes and shrubs, attracting ticks to latch on, the release stated.

Olbrych went with the robot to Texas for its first run, where he had to make a few last-minute adjustments to account for the geography.

Because it's funded from a government grant, the team is carefully watching budget talks unfold in Washington, D.C.

"The strong belief is that regardless of the budget cuts, this is such a critical problem that can threaten our beef supply that they'll get their funding," Col. Jim Squire, an engineer professor on the project, stated in the release.

Olbrych is excited to continue the work next year. He hopes to improve the robot to be programmable rather than remote controlled, which would give the ODU researchers more flexibility.

"This has been a really great project," Olbrych said. "We're going to continue to modify this one and adapt it better for Texas environment."

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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