As some of society’s biggest problems go unsolved after countless attempts by researchers globally, companies like Intel and Google are spurring the interests of youth to solve these problems through science fairs and pitch competitions. Today, I had the honor of chatting with Oliver Nicholls, the winner of the prestigious $75,000 first prize of the 2018 Intel ISEF competition. Having made an automated window-cleaning robot for high-rise buildings, Oliver shares the mechanics of his project and how he went from simply a problem statement to his end product.
Steven: Could you briefly introduce yourself to our audience?
Oliver: My name is Oliver Nicholls; I am 19 years old and from Sydney Australia. I participated in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) this year with my project, an automated window-cleaning robot for high-rise buildings. Having been successful in Australia in pre-college/high school competitions, which earned me a spot at ISEF, I nonetheless entered the competition with no expectations. I was simply hoping to get on stage, so when I was presented with the $75,000 Gordon E. Moore award, I was both baffled and grateful.
Steven: What compelled you to work on pursuing your project, which takes on the task of solving a more unique issue?
Oliver: I was at school and a janitor who was cleaning the windows on the glass roof above the walkway had fallen. It was quite a confronting experience, and I realized that people could be seriously hurt while cleaning windows, moreso windows at higher altitudes like on the sides of high-rise buildings. This incident compelled me to look further into the window cleaning industry, and I found four main problems within it that defined the focus of my project:
- Safety: It is often unsafe for employees to clean windows, particularly on the sides of high-rise buildings.
- Cost: It is often costly to businesses to employ a lot of employees to clean windows.
- Privacy: It is a privacy issue to have people cleaning windows, particularly on the sides of corporate offices.
- Liability for Employees: There is a huge liability for businesses if someone cleaning windows dies or is injured.
Steven: With a problem statement in mind, how did you transition from this stage to ideation to prototyping?
Oliver: I broke my building process down into smaller chunks.
- I was looking at each small step, each thing I needed to learn. A lot of it was new to me as I had no previous experience so I wasn’t even really sure some of the stuff I proposed would actually even be doable. For instance, I was curious whether or not I would be able to control a drone with an Arduino board – turns out I could.
- I began my planning process with a risk matrix. Essentially, I rated my tasks based on their importance versus difficulty. I completed tasks that were both important and difficult first and left the easier tasks to do later in the building process.
- I 3-D-modeled my prototype using CAD.
- I started prototyping with a wooden model because it would be easily changeable, instead of using metal initially. And once I was decently happy after 2-3 models, I then progressed into prototyping with aluminum.
- I built out each subcomponent of my robot, then tested it as system. To make sure that each component of my final product would work as planned.
Steven: Did you have access to particular facilities or funding that allowed you to build out your prototypes?
Oliver: I actually built most of the project in my garage at home. I did go to the local aluminum supplier to gather my materials, this being family-funded, which I am very grateful for. The way that I designed my prototypes made it appropriate for me to build them at home. Even the testing process was done with the glass railing on my balcony. What I did was create 3 meter by 3 meter windows to ‘choreograph’ what the robot’s performance would look like.
Steven: What were some crucial challenges you faced during the project period?
Oliver: In my view, the most difficult problem was the timeframe – I had 9 months to work on my project while balancing senior year so I had a lot to do but very little time. Keeping on track and managing the project became a difficult task at some points in time. But beyond time management, system integration at the end of the project required lots of thought.
Steven: What are the next steps?
Oliver: The next step is to look into patents and potentially furthering the model into a more market-ready state. This means improving individual components to be more reliable as well as furthering the effectiveness of whole system; for instance, figuring out how the robot would attach to old versus new buildings versus to-be-built buildings.
Oliver’s 3 Tips for Aspiring Engineers:
- Write the idea down – keep thinking about it. Don’t discard it. There’s always merit in every idea. Build upon the idea, even if the original idea isn’t what you end up running with it. Unique applications of every idea.
- There are always people keen to help you. If you take your idea into your school/workplace or a maker place, there will be people in the community who will introduce awesome opportunities for students.
- Submit your ideas into competitions, figure out what ideas work with new ideas and applications.
Oliver is a thinker – he appears to not only have the courage to think big, but also the meticulousness to divide tasks into ones that are small enough for him to conquer. We will continue to follow his journey in making his robots commercial, which will be instrumental in increasing the productivity of window-cleaning in industry.
Read more about Oliver’s work here!
Steven is the founder of ProjectileX, Managing Editor of Youth Business Collective, Fellow at Stanford’s Designership Institute, and Member of the Youth Skills Initiative at Global Business Coalition for Education.