The destination for a Westerville-based robotics team is the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Championships in Detroit next month.

After competing in the March 8-9 Miami Valley Regionals against 60 other robotics teams in "Destination: Deep Space," the theme of the 2019 competition, the FIRST Robotics Challenge Team 1317 Digital Fusion is advancing to the championships in Detroit April 24-27, said Judy Hedges, business manager of Digital Fusion.

The theme commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, according to a release announcing the group's achievement. The competition rules were released Jan. 5, and teams around the world had to stop work Feb. 19 at 11:59 p.m., capping off six weeks of designing and building a robot to climb multi-level platforms, in addition to securing hatch panels and loading cargo, according to Hedges.

Teams advance to the championship by being a part of the winning alliance, usually three teams, or winning one of three awards: Chairman's Award, Engineering Inspiration Award or Rookie All Star, Hedges said. Digital Fusion advanced by being part of the winning alliance.

The Westerville team is organized under Educational Robotics of Central Ohio, a STEM-education nonprofit formed in 2004.

Digital Fusion includes students from Westerville, Lewis Center, Delaware, Columbus and New Albany and includes high school freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors and one eighth-grade intern, Hedges said.

"Our team is a community team desiring to inspire a diverse mix of central Ohio students, from public, private and home schools, to develop interest and pursue careers in STEM fields and promote STEM in their community," she said.

Hedges attributes the success of the team to the model used for the program.

"We implemented an engineering-design process three years ago," she said. "Following this process has encouraged the students to move from relying on opinions to making data-based decisions.

"We also strive to give our students a real-world experience on our team," she said.

She said another huge contributor to the group's success is its partnership with The Point at Otterbein University.

"They give us build space and allow us to use their state-of-the-art Maker Space," Hedges said. "These tools have allowed us to create designs that were impossible previously due to tool constraints."

Many teams are sponsored by schools, and many of those schools have actual engineering curriculum that the kids study, according to Hedges.

"We exist for students who do not have access to those programs." she said. "Despite that, with the help of professional mentors and parents, our students are able to build competitive robots."

In preparing for competitions, Hedges said, students must develop technical, critical-thinking, problem-solving, teamwork and communication skills as they engage in real-world engineering experiences.

Stephen Troutner, a senior in Theophile Academy Homeschool who also attends Tolles Career & Technical Center in the engineering and manufacturing program, lives in Columbus, within the Dublin City School District.

This year, he said, he worked mainly on the chassis and pneumatic-lift system as the chassis-component design team leader.

"I also contributed to the team discussions as we tried to figure out our strategy and ideas for completing tasks," he said. "My experience on Team Calamari (another robotics team), and knowledge from the engineering and manufacturing program, prepared me as we discussed engineering concepts."

Troutner said one thing that set Digital Fusion's robot apart from the others is its precise elevator system, manufactured to be precise to 1,000th of an inch.

"Our hatch-panel collection and placement system is also very simple and accurate with its drop-tab design," he said. "Our team is unique as a community-based team of students from various schools and grades. Our partnership with Otterbein has been important to our success over the last few years."

Troutner said he's excited about advancing to the championships since he has wanted to go for several years through participation in various FIRST programs.

"This year, I've been able to be part of Digital Fusion advancing to the FIRST Championships and Team Calamari winning the Think Award and advancing to the state championship, so it has been a great senior year," he said.

Elaine Hedges, a home-schooled sophomore from Lewis Center, said she worked mainly on the chassis and climber.

"Simply put, my CDT (component-design team) designed and built the base of the chassis," she said. "We laid out all of the parts of the chassis and put it together relatively quickly. That was the easy, fun part."

Next, Hedges said, came the designing of the climber.

"Somehow, we had to mount four pistons to the chassis," she said. "Our solution was to plasma-cut eight plates that would support the pistons. Eventually, we received the plates and the chassis was fully assembled."

"Finally, one of the least favorite, and unavoidable, job of many of the chassis CDT members: the taking apart and reassembling of the chassis for a variety of reasons," she said.

Other than working on the chassis CDT, Hedges said, she also helped some of the other CDTs, something that comes with having a small team.

She said there are two aspects of Digital Fusion's robot that sets it apart.

"First, it can do almost anything," she said. "It can place the balls at three of the four levels, place the panels at all levels, climb to the second-level step, and, as we learned in our final matches, it can play defense."

Second, "it was built to last," she said.

She said her family has been with the team for nine years and one of the mentors has been with it for 15.

"We have never been to the championship, so it's going to be an amazing experience," Hedges said.

If the team is successful at the championships, Troutner said, the team would receive a trophy, a banner and medals.

"We would become one of the winners in FIRST Robotics Competition history and bring the success home to Westerville and our sponsors," he said.

The team is sponsored by Honda, American Electric Power, Meijer, Nestle and Otterbein University.

All strategy, design and build sessions for the robot are held at The Point, where the team also holds summer science camps for elementary school-aged children.

Digital Fusion is raising funds to pay the registration fee and travel costs to Detroit. To donate, visit dfweb.org. All donations, which will be made out to ERCO, are tax-deductible.

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla