Ohio State engineers take aim at police firing range issue

In this May 25, 2017 photo, Samantha Edwards with the Columbus Police Department fires a handgun during target training at the Columbus Police Department Firearms Range in Columbus, Ohio. Students at Ohio State University's Department of Engineering took on a belt problem that was gumming up target practice at the police department's firing range as a multidisciplinary capstone project. (Brooke LaValley/The Columbus Dispatch via AP)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — With weapons drawn, a row of Columbus police officers stepped up to the line and steadied their sights. As targets flipped into view, the sound of gunshots shattered the quiet morning at the firing range on the city’s West Side.

Day after day, officers practice their shooting prowess there. Tens of thousands of bullets are fired at targets, striking a steel-plated backstop and dropping to an oval chamber where they lose energy and fall onto a conveyor belt. The belt transports the lead and shrapnel to a barrel for disposal.

That’s if the 5-year-old system is working, which it often didn’t, said Columbus police ordnance unit Sgt. Doug Follmer. Instead, the belt often jammed and gummed up bullet and shrapnel retrieval.

Engineers would work on the belt every now and then, but the fix was always temporary.

Then Columbus police Cmdr. Bob Meader approached Bob Rhoads, director of the multidisciplinary capstone program at Ohio State University’s Department of Engineering. And Rhoads passed the project on to Russell Marzette, an assistant professor who leads the department’s general capstone course each semester.

He talked with four mechanical and aerospace engineering students, who took on the task for their capstone project.

The students spent the first half of fall semester setting up cameras on the range and doing a bit of detective work. They discovered there were areas at the front and back of the conveyor belt that gathered stuff that wasn’t supposed to be there, so they created a system to better help redirect the bullets onto the belt.

“We just figured if these things piled up enough, they would end up causing the belt to fail,” said James Roche, a recent OSU graduate who worked on the project.

A scraper on the front of the belt wasn’t doing a good job of removing smaller items.

“We were worried that it was going to get into the motor or into the drive system and then ultimately cause that to fail in the future,” Roche said.

So the team of engineers added another scraper on the belt with a rubber tip that got more of the smaller debris.

The engineering students also added an extension to the ventilation system to trap some of the lead dust particles.

“A portion of their solution … alleviated the buildup of debris in the system, and by doing that enhances the longevity of the system and creates a cleaner work environment for the users,” Marzette said.

A better conveyor belt, Follmer said, “takes that one level of maintenance concern away.”

Having students create solutions is the best part of his job, Marzette said.

“As faculty, you try to teach and guide and mentor the students so the rewarding part is watching them create a solution and watching them be able to implement that solution and take away the learning outcomes from that,” he said.

Completing a capstone, a nine-month course, is required for engineering students to earn their degree. Each team for the capstone project has a budget of $1,000 provided by the university.

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