First-year engineering student Oliver Nicholls has taken out one of the world’s most prestigious science prizes for school students at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Pittsburgh.
Nicholls developed the project, an autonomous robotic window cleaner, last year as part of his Design and Technology course in the NSW Higher School Certificate. The device is tethered to the roof of a commercial building and equipped with a powerful spray nozzle and rotating scrubbers.
He attributes part of his success to keeping the design simple and dissecting the project so that he could solve individual problems in isolation before bringing it all together at the end.
Nicholls says his device is mostly automated; the only human interaction required involves attaching it to the building, programming a few key dimensions into it and replacing cleaning pads when necessary/
“The machine calculates the size of the window and also a strategy to clean with a simple algorithm,” he said.
“It uses two sets of propellers. The inner set pushes the machine onto the building and the outer set pulls it off, which allows it to fly out from the building and cross over the dividers between the windows.”
He entered the project in the Young Scientist competition run by the Science Teachers Association of NSW, winning first the state competition then the national title earlier this year. This earned him a trip to Pittsburgh in May with nearly 1800 other young innovators from 81 countries. He says that experience alone was worth it, making friends with like minds.
“The Australian team bonded really well but I also made great friends with a group from Poland, some American groups, and a group from Brazil,” he said.
He picked up first place in the Robotics and Intelligent Machines category and was over the moon, thinking he’d done better than he hoped. However, he then heard his name called out as the winner of the top prize, the Gordon E Moore Award worth US$75,000.
He’s been told that previous winners have been given opportunities to study at places like MIT, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon Universities, and he’s hopeful he might get a similar opportunity in the future. For now, he has to focus on his studies at the University of NSW where he plans to major in mechatronics.
And the window cleaning machine? He’s taken out a provisional patent so he can explore how much further he can take it in the future.