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Naval Academy uses Legos to teach weapons systems

Aug. 4, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
This robot created from a Lego Mindstorms Education NXT base set can kick a ball, but mids use their building blocks for gun turrets and mock radars.
This robot created from a Lego Mindstorms Education NXT base set can kick a ball, but mids use their building blocks for gun turrets and mock radars. (Lego Education)
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Block specs

The Lego Mindstorms Education NXT set contains 431 elements, including:
■ A programmable NXT Brick — billed by Lego as the robot’s “brain.”
■ Three interactive servo motors.
■ Multiple sensors, including two touch sensors, sound and light devices, and an ultrasonic sensor Lego says can help robots judge distances.
■ All the basics: Rechargeable battery with charger, connecting cables, a plastic storage bin with sorting trays, and full-color building instructions.
Source: Lego Education

Move over, green Army men. Legos could soon be supplanting you as the favorite toys of war.

The treasured little blocks of childhood are being used to teach the Navy’s future officers how to use the fleet’s weapons. And it’s not because of budget cuts.

The service issued a solicitation July 8 for 133 Lego Mindstorms Education NXT sets that will be used in the Naval Academy’s Naval Weapons System class.

The Naval Academy has used the kits for several years, but the July 8 Navy solicitation at FedBizOpps.gov, garnered headlines on both defense-industry and gadget blogs and sparked mocking fear that Lego robot battalions would soon become self-aware and take to battle.

“As soon as they become self-aware and turn on us, just push them off the table,” cautioned one Gizmodo reader.

Jokes aside, the Lego set is “fairly sophisticated technology that has a wide range of learning applications — including in university programs,” said Abby Fern, marketing director for Lego Education North America, via email.

An “NXT 2.0” kit retails for $280 in Lego’s online store and is recommended for ages 10 and up. At Annapolis, the sets are used in the Controlled Systems Laboratory, a course intended for junior and senior mids.

The lab builds the students’ engineering backgrounds, said Lt. Kristina Rohlin, an academy instructor teaching a lab this summer.

“The students are given scenario-based challenges that are related to real-world naval and Marine Corps officers’ problems,” she said.

In the lab, learning to build the robots and modify them to solve a problem has application for their future naval careers, which could involve using weapons control systems aboard aircraft and submarines, Rohlin said.

“The course enables the students to apply fundamental principles of weapons systems to their jobs in the fleet,” she said.

Students have used the interlocking blocks to build a mobile gun turret, Rohlin said. They learn to control the stability and balance of the tank-mounted turret as it travels through various terrains. The students also build a system similar to mechanically rotated radar systems, which they will see aboard ships in the fleet. The Navy will also buy software allowing sailors to control handmade robots.

Using the familiar blocks yields “a great response in terms of student interest, as well as their excitement about engineering,” Rohlin said.

The Naval Academy is not the only university to use Legos. An Arizona State University professor has used the same sets to teach engineering and computing majors; that class used the set to build an animal robot that looked for food, according to information provided by Lego Education.

Lego said it was not aware of any other militaries or service branches using their robotics kits like mids do in Annapolis, although Air Force solicitations on FedBizOpps from 2008 and 2012 seek Lego Education robotics kits. Fern said the company has no problem with the military using their toys.

“We are always excited to see new uses for the ... platform,” Fern said in the statement. “The U.S. Naval Academy has produced a good number of our nation’s heroes. ... It’s exciting for Lego Education to be part of that.”

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