Robotics team readies for competition season

Team THRUST Coordinator Chris Elston (center) coaches his team on how to make its robot fire cannonballs at the Vocational Technical Center on Monday, Feb. 8. Team members pictured are (from left) Jake Garlits, Jacob Burns, Doug Melchi, Andrew Land and Noah Nguyen.
Team THRUST Coordinator Chris Elston (center) coaches his team on how to make its robot fire cannonballs at the Vocational Technical Center on Monday, Feb. 8. Team members pictured are (from left) Jake Garlits, Jacob Burns, Doug Melchi, Andrew Land and Noah Nguyen. Photo by Ehren Wynder.

Originally published Feb. 22, 2016.

Chris Elston gathers his team of high school students around their mechanized war machine.

In their workshop littered with scrap metal and computer parts, and the air filled with the whirring of saw blades and heavy tunes by popular rock band Disturbed, Team THRUST is hard at work to make a robot that will lead them to victory.

The team kicked off its 11th season on Jan. 9 and must complete its robot before the first regional competition in Tippecanoe on March 11.

“What you see happened in four weeks,” says Elston, who serves as the leader for Team THRUST. “It started as a blank sheet of paper — it’s all custom aluminum, sheet metal.”

The name of the game is StrongHold, and it consists of medieval-based tasks that the robot will have to overcome, such as crossing over a “moat” obstacle, made of two two-by-fours and a piece of plywood, and launching rubber balls or “boulders” through a castle wall.

Team THRUST’s robot stands about two feet tall and runs on tank treads. It will soon have a shooter affixed to it that will allow it to fire the boulders.
Elston’s team has also created a practice “castle” made out of plywood to simulate the tasks that it will have to do in competition.

The castle windows stand about 12 feet tall. Their robot will have to launch the projectile through the castle windows to “take the castle,” Elston says.

“There’s 45 teams in the state of Indiana,” Elston explains. “There’s 3,000 teams in the world. We all do the same thing. So we’re competing against the world title.”

Team THRUST has two district competitions, one in Tippecanoe on March 11 and the other in Indianapolis on March 24. From there, they will move on to the State championship in Kokomo on April 14.

“If we don’t do well here then we don’t go to state,” Elston says. “We came in second place at state last year. We went to the finals and we lost.”

Elston has been on the robotics team for 12 years and he’s mentored more than 400 high school students, instructing them in mechanics, electrical and programming.

One of his students, Huntington North High School senior Tyler McCaulley, is hard at work programming a smart camera that can track the target where the robot will fire its projectiles.

“We’re setting our camera on a swivel,” McCaulley says, “and by doing that, we eliminate a lot of driver aiming error.”

McCaulley has also programmed a controller from an Xbox console, with which the driver will be able to operate the camera and the robot.

“It’s always fun to watch it go out there and do something, like, ‘Hey, I programmed that!” McCaulley says.

Elston is also excited to see his team’s robot in action.

“We’re a pretty competitive team,” he says. “We’re always in the top 5 percent of Indiana when we play.”