Local robotics teams help shield those at risk from COVID
The Wilsonville and West Linn robotics teams spent months building robots for the spring competition season.
Wilsonville's team, which nearly won its first competition, was feeling especially optimistic about this year's event.
However, all hopes and good feelings were dashed when restrictions to hinder the spread of the novel coronavirus meant that the fledgling season was already finished.
"It was quite a letdown. They invested an extraordinary number of hours passionately putting together their competitive robot," said Wilsonville team mentor Marshall Stowell.
"It was really disappointing, especially for the seniors," West Linn High junior and team member Amanda Hioe added.
But these teams have turned what could have been a wasted season into an opportunity to help curtail the spread of the virus and protect those who are most vulnerable.
In recent weeks, they have produced hundreds of shields, which protect the eyes, mouth, and nose from droplets that could carry the virus, and sent them to entities across the state and beyond.
"It's certainly great to have within the community these STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)-focused programs like robotics," Stowell said. "When something like this occurs, they are one of the resources that can be counted on that is already set up and ready to go that can help."
The idea originated from Wilsonville mentor Tim Bennington-Davis's friend, who works in the emergency room at Legacy Meridian Park Medical Center. The friend told Bennington-Davis about a protective shield design the 3D printing company Prusa3D had created and shared for others to use and asked if the robotics team could replicate the design to develop much-needed protective gear for healthcare workers.
Knowing his team had spent dozens of hours using 3D printers to build robot parts, Bennington-Davis felt that it would be up for the challenge. So he asked members of Wilsonville and West Linn's teams about the possibility of developing the shields, and all agreed.
"(Through the project), they could see how gracious professionalism in the world makes a difference," Bennington-Davis said.
The students and mentors create the shields while abiding by social distancing.
For one, students who own 3D printers can create shield head and chin pieces with the printers, which precisely squirt out a melted plastic filament.
"You can build a part on a horizontal surface one layer (of filament) at a time. That's why these students at their homes can make exactly the same part based on a design," Bennington-Davis said.
The shield also includes a rubber or elastic band that goes around the back of a person's head and a plastic visor. The mentors assemble these parts.
And Bennington-Davis said the masks are cheap to produce (about $2 each), and the team can build dozens in a matter of days.
"Over the course of two days, the students will have made 50 headband sets, and Marshall and I will make 50 of the clear shield sets," Bennington-Davis said. "In two hours, we can do the final assembly to turn them into completed face shields."
And Bennington-Davis said the shields are just as effective as medical-grade masks, if maybe less comfortable and long-lasting.
"The goal is what can we get turned around that's pretty effective and can get quickly built and easily assembled," he said.
To finish the job, those that don't have a 3D printer are tasked with calling organizations asking if they could use the shields, then distributing them.
Hioe serves as the business lead of the project.
"I've been posting everything on social media, been contacting people to see who is in need of face masks, and who can donate filament for the printers," she said.
The team has distributed the shields to police departments in Wilsonville, West Linn and Lake Oswego, therapists who regularly visit nursing homes, pharmacists at Rite Aid, a Safeway cashier and nurses at Oregon Health and Sciences University, among others.
"What we're finding by word of mouth is the folks that may be in harm's way but don't have primary access to medical-grade shields, is who we can help out," Bennington-Davis said. Medical workers who only have one mask available to them have found the extra mask to relieves stress.
Hioe noted that the Wilsonville robotics team does many community-oriented projects throughout the year, like an engineering camp for scouts. Like the others, she has found this shield project rewarding.
"We try to fix and create things for the community all year round. It's been really awesome to see this go through," she said.
Visit wilsonvillerobotics.org to donate money to the project.
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