ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md., Aug. 23, 2011 -- Student scientists are helping the Army develop insect-sized robots that can infiltrate a building and warn Soldiers of an impending threat.

These autonomous robots could be equipped with heat or acoustic sensors and deployed in dangerous situations.

Summer interns at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, or ARL, are working alongside Army civilian scientists to find solutions to the military's toughest technological challenges.


Keith McKinzie, a recent graduate of the Science and Math Academy at Aberdeen High School, applied his coursework in calculus and physics at ARL.

"You're doing real research," McKinzie said. "It's not results they're going to throw away later."

McKinzie assisted his mentor, ARL aerospace engineer Chris Kroninger, in studying the movement of a robotic wing the size of a fruit fly. To obtain accurate results, they adjusted their experiment.

They analyzed data from a model wing rotating in a mineral-oil tank.

"With a wind tunnel, you take something like an airplane and shrink it down to make it smaller in order to run tests," McKinzie said. "We're doing the reverse. We take something really small and make it bigger to run tests."

McKinzie said he was able to use his interest in flight during the team's research.

"Little baby birds can learn to fly, but we can't teach our advanced robots that can detect poisonous gas how to fly. [Our goal is to] learn how to put that capability into a robot and use it," McKinzie said.

Their research is part of the Micro Autonomous Systems Technology collaborative technology alliance, a partnership of 12 universities, defense contractors and government laboratories.

Several ARL teams, including Vehicle Technology Directorate, Sensors and Electron Devices Directorate and Weapons and Materials Research Directorate, are participating in the program, Kroninger said.


McKinzie begins his studies in engineering and physics at Harford Community College this fall. He said he would like to become a mechanical engineer and work in aviation.

"There is science in everything. When you learn physics, you learn how stuff works. My teachers were a big help," McKinzie said. "At the Science and Math Academy, they taught a lot of engineering skills, which is what actually brought me here."

McKinzie participated in the Department of Defense's Science and Engineering Apprenticeship Program. He finished his internship Aug. 19.

Kroninger said ARL leadership strongly encourages its researchers to serve as mentors to high-school and college students. ARL Director John Miller heard McKinzie's research presentation and encouraged him to apply for an internship.

Popular Science magazine recently named ARL as one of its "25 Most Awesome College Labs 2011."

"For the progress of our nation, we certainly need to keep growing and improving. We need to maintain a strong capability in science and technology," Kroninger said. "As a society, we need to be encouraging growth in those fields.

"[We need to] think deeply about problem-solving and understanding the way the world works. I think it's very important to find those people and get them in those fields because they'll be most productive and happy doing that sort of work."


Kroninger, who holds a master's degree in aerospace engineering, has worked at ARL for five years and is the acting team lead of microsystem mechanics within Vehicle Technology Directorate. He previously taught high-school math in inner-city Philadelphia for four years.

"From my experience as a teacher, we seriously have to address how science and math are taught at younger ages. By the time students are getting to high school and are thinking about science careers, [we need to make sure] they aren't already behind the curve in education in those fields," Kroninger said. "Fostering a sense of curiosity is an important aspect of life in science, math and technology."

Because the scientific world is so broad and diverse, exploring its many fields early on is vital, McKinzie said.

"I would recommend looking as early as possible into science courses. If you can, get an internship. Do something to see if it's something you're interested in," McKinzie said. "You can understand where you want to go with it. There are so many different fields, it's good to know what you really do want to do."