Robotics group may soon find home in former LaVale warehouse

Students in the intermediate level REACT Summer Robotics Camp recently built and programmed their robots to battle each other on a Sumo LEGO board. (Submitted photo)

LAVALE — A contract for the renovation of a local building, that’s planned to include robotics training and career preparation, could be awarded next week. 

Last year, officials from the county, Allegany College of Maryland and the Maryland Small Business Development Center announced their partnership to purchase Western Maryland Works — a 32,000-square-foot former warehouse at 37 Lane Ave. in LaVale. 

On Monday, Allegany County Administrator Brandon Butler said a request for proposal for the building’s remodel could come to fruition by the next county commissioners meeting on July 11.

The makerspace could open this fall or winter, he said.

“We’re moving forward,” Butler said.

The new space will likely become home for a local robotics group.

Robotics and Engineering in Allegany County — Together is a nonprofit that incorporates critical thinking, collaboration and communication skills into robotics instruction for elementary, middle and high school students across the county.

While only ACM will have a dedicated place in the building, other groups will share and schedule spaces. 

Although details aren’t final, REACT will likely operate from the building and pay no or "very low" rent, Butler said.

“Partnerships with folks like REACT will only benefit this community,” he said.

Mike Fiscus is a media specialist and robotics coach at Northeast Elementary School. He’s also REACT’s president. Fiscus and several other folks started the nonprofit about two years ago to implement local robotics programs.

“The beauty of REACT is that … we’ve connected all of the various (local robotics) interests and resources that are available and we’re building on that,” Fiscus said.

The organization receives money for robotics programs from grants, fundraisers and donations.

Contributions to REACT totaled $41,938 in 2018 and about $20,000 so far this year.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of support in the county,” Fiscus said. “Each (robotics) team needs about $3,000 to get off the ground.”

Among the group’s advocates is AES Corp. in Cumberland.

“They’ve just been a great supporter for us,” he said.

Bill McKenzie, president of the Ag Expo at the Allegany County Fair, said he’s also a REACT fan.

Next month, a 4-H robotics challenge will be held — as a qualifier for an upcoming state tournament — during the fair. 

The robotics competition at the fair started last year, he said. This year’s event has been expanded to two nights.

“I hope to be on the cutting edge (by) helping these kids,” McKenzie said. “We’re working really hard to give them a proper place to present their exhibits and show off their skills.”

The REACT program was inspired by the Garrett Engineering And Robotics Society. The award-winning GEARS Inc. program operates from a 5,000-square-foot industrial space.

“They’ve been our mentor all along,” Fiscus said of GEARS officials. “They have a world-class facility. We’re trying to emulate that.”

Phil Malone founded GEARS roughly 15 years ago. 

Malone, an Australia native, worked in robotics for most of his career, which included undersea cable installation for the United States Navy.

“Since GEARS has been in existence, there has been a Garrett County (robotics) team at the world championship every year — sometimes up to four (teams),” Malone said. “It’s been quite astounding.” 

Having a dedicated training space has been key to the program’s success, he said.

Garrett County commissioners purchased a building that gives GEARS a rent-free home.

“We’ve been in there since 2006,” Malone said. “(The building) has been super essential.”

Learn more at reactallegany.com.

Robotics tourney July 16-17

• A robotics tournament will be held at 5 p.m. July 16 and 17 in the multipurpose room at the Allegany County Fairgrounds, 11490 Moss Ave. in Cumberland.

• GEARS, 116 Industrial Park Drive in Accident, is holding a drone camp from 2 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays for children ages 8 and older. Participants will learn to fly miniature drones through challenging activities indoors. The cost is $30 per two-hour session. Learn more and register at Gearsinc.org.

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