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Penn College Student Gives Life to Robot

Darkness envelops the college. The campus mall is quiet and still. It’s the middle of the week and nearly 1 o’clock in the morning. Most of the Pennsylvania College of Technology community will be asleep for several more hours, recharging for another productive day.

But a couple electronics majors are wide awake. Their windowless lab is bright and buzzing with activity. An unsuspecting guest would assume it’s the middle of the afternoon as the students painstakingly contemplate their latest challenge.

Among them is junior David M. Zlotnicki. He is tired and has an analog systems class in eight hours. He’s also not leaving the lab for the comforts of bed. Zlotnicki is on a roll.

A "wired glove” created by Penn College student David M. Slotnicki, of Oil City, allows him to manipulate the arm of a robot.
A “wired glove” created by Penn College student David M. Slotnicki, of Oil City, allows him to manipulate the arm of a robot.

Such dedication has yielded an impressive project incorporating Zlotnicki’s love of electronics and robotics. His creation is a showstopper for the college’s Open House and everyday tours of prospective students. Visitors break into a smile when Zlotnicki’s robot mirrors the moves of his “wired glove.”

“One of the biggest reasons I chose electronics at Penn College was because it’s hands-on learning,” said Zlotnicki, of Oil City. “I like projects where you can build, incorporate different aspects and see it working. If you’re looking for a good blend of theoretical and technical, I think Penn College is a great fit.”

Zlotnicki knew technology was a great fit for him at an early age when he moved from the spotlight as an actor and singer in community theater to backstage as a tech guru for drama productions throughout high school.

“Running sound and lights was really my introduction to electronics,” he said.

Advanced computer courses solidified that interest and prompted him to seek a technology college. After visiting a friend at Penn College, that search came to an end. The school’s applied technology focus within a traditional college environment led him to seek a bachelor’s degree in electronics and computer engineering technology. Eventually, he added an associate degree in robotics and automation to his full schedule.

“I like techy things and gadgets,” Zlotnicki said.

His project qualifies as both.

A one-arm, six-axis robot possesses humanoid capabilities, thanks to his determination to incorporate electronics, robotics and automation.

“What’s interesting about David’s project is that he took one of our robots and is controlling it in a way that it really isn’t meant to be controlled,” said Richard J. Calvert Jr., assistant professor and department head of electronics and computer engineering technology. “He integrated concepts from several different classes and that takes some good skill. His project encompasses so many areas, and he made it all work.”

Typically, a computer program controls the movements of the educational robot. Zlotnicki bypassed the computer for that responsibility. He created and programmed his own dual processor on a development board and printed a circuit board to control the robot’s motors. Zlotnicki glued a stamp-size sensor, an accelerometer, to the top of a black work glove that he slips onto his right hand. The sensor monitors the glove’s orientation and sends the corresponding signal to the robot via the board driving the robot’s six motors.

When Zlotnicki moves the glove side to side and up and down, the robot’s arm dutifully follows.

“The moment I knew everything was worth it was when I saw it operate successfully for the first time,” he said. “I was like, ‘OK, this is cool!’ Up to that point, I had a lot of failure. It’s not for the faint of heart.”

“What impressed me the most is that he didn’t ask many questions,” said Ken J. Kinley, instructor of electronics and computer engineering technology. “Other than having to get him a few parts and answering some minor questions here and there, David did it on his own.”

To be prepped for industry success, students must embrace troubleshooting with limited assistance, according to Calvert.

“We are always looking for students who we can tell, ‘Go do this.’ And they go, ‘OK.’ Then they come back later and it all works. That is by far the kind of employee that industry wants, someone who can operate independently and take initiative. David didn’t know how to do this project. He worked it out. There’s going to be a wonderful future for a person like that. Industry wants to snatch those folks up,” he said.

Zlotnicki hopes his future includes a career as an automation integrator, traveling to various industrial facilities to establish automation systems.

Calvert believes that’s a wise choice.

“I tell the students, that for this generation, the jobs are in automation. There’s just a tremendous amount of growth,” he said.

Between now and his May 2019 graduation, Zlotnicki will be adding to the 100 hours thus far dedicated to his “wired glove.” He will be improving it as part of his senior project.

“I want the robot to be able to move in several directions,” he said. “I want it to be able to track my hand in 3-D space, follow my hand one to one. That’s going to be tricky.”

But he is up for the challenge, no matter the time of day.

“I love what I’m doing,” he said. “I know all the hard work will pay off. Seeing the robot work and seeing other people’s reactions to it, definitely makes it worth it.”

For Zlotnicki, that satisfaction is obviously worth much more than sleep.

For more about the electronics and computer engineering technology major and other programs offered by the School of Industrial, Computing & Engineering Technologies, call 570-327-4520.

Penn College is a national leader in applied technology education and workforce development. Email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.

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