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After competition canceled, Helena robotics team pivots to face masks and shields

After competition canceled, Helena robotics team pivots to face masks and shields

From the Look for the helpers: Stories of local people doing good amid the pandemic series

Fusion Robotics team member Miranda Sheafor adds elastic to 3D printed face masks. 

Helena's Fusion Robotics team is among the many student groups that felt the sting of coronavirus cancellations. 

During the past season, Fusion earned another shot at the worldwide First Robotics Competition in Houston, Texas. This year marked the third in a row that the team qualified for the championship event.

As the team was preparing for the competition, however, the event was called off due to the pandemic. 

"The whole team was devastated by the news of cancellation, especially the seniors," said Mike Ellis, longtime coach. "This was their last year and they had such a great robot."

However, they found another way to put their skills to good use. 

About two months ago, Ellis and his son saw a news segment about Billings neurosurgeon Dr. Dusty Richardson and dentist Spencer Zaugg making the code for a printable mask available for use. Ellis followed up to offer help with the aid of Fusion's two 3D printers.

Ellis and the Fusion team started printing masks almost two months ago, not long after the coronavirus pandemic hit Montana. They started ordering filament and making two masks every three or so hours. Before long they had made over 100 masks. Ellis said the kids help by applying the necessary elastic and filters to the masks.

The team filled orders for the Billings Clinic, Billings Police Department, dentist offices and physical therapy offices. Then Ellis had the idea to help out by making masks for others.

"At this point we decided to put something on our Facebook to let individuals know about it," Ellis said. "We wanted to help the community. Boy did we get flooded with requests."

The team would make masks and allow people to pick them up from Ellis' front porch. Some thankful people donated money to the team, and others sent thank you cards.

"That is something we will hold onto forever," Ellis said.


Fusion Robotics team member Jaden Ellis models one of the face shields created by the group. 

As the demand for masks declined, Ellis and the team shifted to making full face shields. Even now Ellis is still receiving requests for face shields.

The face shields are a more complicated design, according to Ellis. It starts with cutting the plastic material to fit a mask, then the team has to drill holes without the material cracking. Ellis then heats and bends the material into shape without it breaking. Then the Fusion team adds elastic and Ellis adds foam to make the shield rest more comfortably on the face.

In all, it takes about two and a half hours of 3D printing and about 45 minutes of labor to assemble a single mask.

Ellis said this bit of community service has been great for the Fusion team. It not only gave them something to do in the wake of the canceled competition, but it also gave them a way to help the community. Though demand is dying down for now, Ellis said he and the team are available to fill orders as needed.

However, the Fusion team isn't calling it quits on robotics until the fall season. Team members Jaden Ellis and Rhett Quinn have taken to building their own robots in their spare time. Ellis said these three-wheeled robots are designed to move very fast and the team plans on racing them.

The team has also approached Ellis about starting summer programming. This would be a first for the team, as summer is typically when they'd travel to the competition and then take a break. The team also has a standing offer to travel to Bethesda, Maryland, for a private competition with some of the nation's best teams.

Ellis said he is unsure exactly how the students will spend the coming months, but at least they have some options. 

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