On some afternoons, the focus of the innovation center at the Pendleton Unmanned Aerial Systems Range is decidedly ground-bound.

As workers from the drone industry leave the offices near the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport, the Pendleton High School robotics team takes over the facility.

The students were putting the finishing touches on their robot Wednesday, or as teammate Landon Thornburg called it, the “get-everything-working phase.”

Under the rules of the robotics league, FIRST, the PHS team had until 9 p.m. to complete its robot before bagging it for competition.

Thornburg spent much of Wednesday in a workshop toward the back of the building, installing and tinkering with various robot parts to ensure everything fits and functions.

Despite the occasionally harried atmosphere, everyone involved with the team said the conditions are night and day compared to last year.

The 2016-2017 team didn’t have a dedicated workshop and needed to make an appeal to the Umatilla High School robotics team to help them with programming. Pendleton’s team wasn’t able to determine whether they had a functional robot until the final day of competition.

But most importantly, the team had little in the way of adult guidance or mentoring.

Thornburg’s mother, Ronda, and several other parents stepped in and helped organize the team as it made a surprise run to the FIRST national competition in Houston.

Both mother and son were busy Wednesday, Landon grinding down a chain that was too big for the axles it was supposed to connect and Ronda sanding the robot’s exterior.

As they worked, Ronda peppered in details as Landon recalled how he met Steve Lawn, the Pendleton UAS Range officer.

Landon met Lawn at a robotics event a couple years ago, where Landon mentioned that the high school team intended to compete in a more advanced division in the coming year.

The pair kept in touch and Landon and the team were eventually able to convince Lawn to come aboard as a mentor for the current season.

The connection has paid off.

Not only was Lawn able to lend the city’s UAS facility to the robotics team, but some of its unique technological features and his expertise.

The mentoring team grew to include three other experts: Jeremy Lasater and Sam Allen from the InterMountain Educational Service District and tech consultant Devin McKeon.

While last year’s team took a more all-hands-on-deck approach, this year’s team has more defined responsibilities. Team captain Walker Paullus said team members’ roles include building, programming, strategy and simulation.

While Landon and other members worked on the physical robot, programmer Makenzie Noggle was responsible for making it work.

Noggle was trying to figure how to assign one of the robot’s actions to a button and sought help from McKeon. McKeon mapped out the controls on a white board, explaining how even subtle actions need to be programmed into a robot before they can be combined into more complex maneuvers.

Despite some of her struggles last year, Noggle said she loved robotics and programming.

“Basically, you’re taking an inanimate object and making it do what you want,” she said.

Besides new expertise, the team is also leaning on some of the new capabilities to improve on last year’s results.

While the rules are more complex, FIRST competitions require contestants to make their robots pick up an object and deposit it in a designated location.

Teammate Evan Miller spent weeks building new elements onto a basic 3-D map, using the facility’s design software to simulate the colors, cubes and robots that will be used in the competition.

The simulation was important in the design phase as members tried to figure out how to optimize the robot for competition. With the robot hardware done, the team hopes to use it to simulate the software and how it will operate in the field.

While some members were ambivalent about pursuing robotics, others see it as a stepping stone.

Paullus said he’s been passionate about robots since he ordered his first kit in the fourth grade.

“I saw it and said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” he said.

One of the drone range’s top officials, Lawn took a similar route to his current profession.

Always interested in remote controlled vehicles, Lawn took a job out of high school at a hobby shop in Charleston, South Carolina.

While he was flying an RC helicopter one day, a man came into the store and, impressed with his skills, offered him a job at his unmanned aerial vehicle company.

Lawn began operating and working with helicopter UAVs, learning more about their technical side.

He was eventually laid off, and when he was denied a job at a top hobby distributor in Illinois because he lacked a college degree, Lawn decided to go back to school.

Lawn enrolled at Middle Tennessee State University, and while he obtained a degree in aerospace he also worked for the school’s unmanned aircraft systems office.

Through his job at the university, he met Young Kim, the CEO of Digital Harvest, a Virginia agricultural drone company.

Lawn was hired by Kim within two days of graduating from college, and when the company established a Pendleton office to test and develop UAS at the Pendleton range, he moved west in 2016.

Excited by the possibilities the range offered, he took a job with the city in 2017.

Paullus isn’t the only student hoping to turn toys and games into a professional career.

Noggle has already been accepted to Oregon State University, where she’ll study computer engineering. She eventually hopes to study abroad in Japan, which has a thriving robotics industry.

Thornburg, who is only a sophomore, also wants to make robotics a long-term pursuit.

“It’s stressful, but I thrive on stress,” he said.

For now, the team’s focus is on the competition.

With the robot under wraps until their first contest in Wilsonville, the team will have to wait until March 8 to see how much difference a year can make.

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Contact Antonio Sierra at asierra@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.

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