AI-focused grant enhances program for veterans

WARNER ROBINS, Georgia — Naiya Salinas and her instructor, Deryk Stoops, looked back and forth between the large screen on the wall and a hand-held monitor.

Tracing between the lines of code, Salinas made a discovery: A character was missing.

The lesson was an important, real-world example of the problem-solving skills required when working in robotics. Salinas is one of a half-dozen students enrolled in the new AI Enhanced Robotic Manufacturing program at the Georgia Veterans Education Career Transition Resource (VECTR) Center, which is setting a new standard for technology-focused careers.

The set-up of the lab was intentional, said Stoops, who designed the course modules and worked with local industry to determine their manufacturing needs. Then, with funding from Georgia Artificial Intelligence in Manufacturing (Georgia AIM), Stoops worked with administrators at Central Georgia Technical College to purchase robotics and other cutting-edge manufacturing tools.

As a result, the VECTR Center’s AI-Enhanced Robotic Manufacturing Studio trains veterans in industry-standard robotics, manufacturing modules, cameras, and network systems. This equipment gives students experience in a variety of robotics-based manufacturing applications. Graduates can also finish the 17-credit course with two certifications that carry some weight in the manufacturing world.

“After getting the Georgia AIM grant, we pulled together a roundtable with industry. And then we did site visits to see how they pulled AI and robotics into the space,” said Stoops. “All the equipment in here is the direct result of industry feedback.”


Statewide Strategic Effort

Funded by a $65 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration, Georgia AIM is a network of projects across the state led by Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. These projects work to connect the manufacturing community with smart technologies and a ready workforce. Central Georgia received around $4 million as part of the initiative to advance innovation, workforce development and STEM education in support of local manufacturing and Robins Air Force Base.

Georgia AIM pulls together a host of regional partners all working toward a common goal of increasing STEM education, access to technology and enhancing AI among local manufacturers. This partnership includes Fort Valley State University, the Middle Georgia Innovation Project led by the Development Authority of Houston County, Central Georgia Technical College, which administers the VECTR Center, and the 21st Century Partnership.

“This grant will help us turn our vision for both the Middle Georgia Innovation Project and the Middle Georgia STEM Alliance, along with our partners, into reality, advancing this region and supporting the future of Robins AFB,” said Brig. Gen. John Kubinec, USAF (ret.), president and chief executive officer of the 21st Century Partnership.

Georgia AIM funding for Central Georgia Technical College and Fort Valley State focused on enhancing technology and purchasing new components to assist in education. At Fort Valley State, a mobile lab will launch later this year to take AI-enhanced technologies to underserved parts of the state, while Central Georgia Tech invested in an AI-enhanced robotics manufacturing lab at the VECTR Center.

“This funding will help bring emerging technology throughout our service area and beyond, to our students, economy, and Robins Air Force Base,” said Dr. Ivan Allen, president of Central Georgia Technical College. “Thanks to the power of this partnership, our faculty and students will have the opportunity to work directly with modern manufacturing technology, giving our students the experience and education needed to transition from the classroom to the workforce in an in-demand industry.”


New Gateway for Vets

The VECTR Center’s AI-Enhanced Robotics Manufacturing Studio includes FANUC robotic systems, Rockwell Automation programmable logic controllers, Cognex AI-enabled machine vision systems, smart sensor networks, and a MiR autonomous mobile robot.

The studio graduated its first cohort of students in February and celebrated its ribbon-cutting ceremony on April 17 with a host of local officials and dignitaries. It was also an opportunity to celebrate the students, who are transitioning from a military career to civilian life.

The new technologies at the VECTR Center lab are opening new doors to a growing, cutting-edge field.

“From being in this class, you really start to see how the world is going toward AI. Not just Chat GPT, but everything — the world is going toward AI for sure now,” said Jordan Leonard, who worked in logistics and as a vehicle mechanic in the U.S. Army. Now, he’s upskilling into robotics and looking forward to using his new skills in maintenance. “What I want to do is go to school for instrumentation and electrical technician. But since a lot of industrial plants are trying to get more robots, for me this will be a step up from me coworkers by knowing these things.”