There is no age limit to ingenuity, and competitions like the Intel International Science and Engineering fair really help to hammer home this message.
Each year, millions of high schoolers across the globe are encouraged to explore their passion for science and drive to make the world a better place. Of these determined applicants, a bunch of the best brains are selected to compete for an impressive $4 million in awards and scholarships. And this year, unsurprisingly, the finalists didn’t disappoint. Although there were far too many to choose from, here are a few of our favorite innovators who we thought deserved showcasing.
Alex Wulff, 15, Skaneateles High School, NY: Wearable proximity warning device for the blind
For some, broken bones mean befriending Ben and Jerry and carving a perfect butt-print in the sofa cushion, but Alex decided to make the most of his “rest” days and began experimenting with programming and robotics. Because why watch Friends when you can build a robot in your kitchen?
After playing around with distance sensors so that his inventions could essentially “see,” Alex tells IFLScience that he thought to himself, “Hey, if I can get inanimate piles of wires and parts to see, why can’t I use the same technology to help visually impaired people do the same?” And so his project was born.
After spending many months laboriously designing, tweaking and improving his inventions, Alex eventually came up with a family of low-cost wearable devices that give blind users the ability to sense objects in their environment. Using a combination of ultrasonic and infrared sensors, the devices detect the proximity of objects and, if one falls within a certain range, they begin vibrating in a pattern that tells the user where it is. What’s more, multiple devices can be worn all over the body, like a watch or a pendant, “giving [users] a really good sense of what their surroundings ‘feel’ like,” says Alex.
“My devices surround them in a cocoon of information. This enables them to navigate indoor environments with ease, and creates a great sense of independence for these users.”
Impressively, he wrote all of the programs himself, and used his school’s 3D printer to make some of the cases, which he also designed and modeled on his own.
Nilay Mehta, 16, Irvine, California: Low-cost, 3D printed prosthetic hand that functions through voice and muscle control
While some pretty impressive high-end prosthetic hands have come on the market, those who don’t have the money to fork out for these pricey devices are forced to make do with cheaper options, which often have extremely limited functionality. Some, for example, are only capable of opening and closing the hand. With the ultimate goal of bridging this significant gap, 16-year-old Nilay endeavored to create a prosthetic hand that’s composed of cheap parts but still capable of bestowing the user with a decent amount of control.
To do this, Nilay used a combination of voice control and electromyography, a means of measuring electrical activity produced by muscle stimulation. This enables the user to both change the type of grip through voice control and operate the hand using skeletal muscle activation, Nilay tells IFLScience.
Ava Lakmazaheri, 17, McLean, Virginia: Brainwave-controlled humanoid robot
After watching a video showcasing how a brain-computer interface allowed a tetraplegic woman to control a robotic arm using her thoughts, passionate robotics engineer Ava was inspired to come up with a novel way to improve the quality of life for people with severe physical disabilities. Ultimately, Ava tells IFLScience that she would like to build a commercially viable exoskeleton that would allow those with physical disabilities not only to walk but to manipulate objects using their mind.
“Obviously a lot of research and development work has to be done before such a vision can be realized; I have a feeling this work will span my entire professional career,” she says.
For now, Ava has been working on a project which involves using brainwaves to directly control a prototype humanoid robot that she designed and constructed herself.
“I use a facial expression technique (jaw clenching) to communicate with the robot through an EEG headset,” she explains. The signals gathered are then processed and translated into a set of instructions that the robot can use to perform an action. The robot can also be programmed to perform certain tasks so that users aren’t required to be constantly mentally engaged, which is useful when an action needs to be repeatedly performed.
Simone Braunstein, 17, New York: Novel controller for soft robots
Soft robotics is a rapidly emerging field, and these flexible devices are already cropping up with a variety of applications, such as injury rehabilitation and search-and-rescue missions. Although they outperform traditional hard robots at certain tasks, engineers have encountered a frustrating problem: their action is often imprecise, an issue that is the result of overly-simplistic manual controls.
To get around this unpredictable motion problem, Simone designed a 3-legged soft robotic gripper and combined it with a verifiable, self-correcting control system, which she tells IFLScience has never been done before.
Her innovation is so impressive that she has deservedly won second place in her section, and she has also received first prize for her poster presentation at the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium national finals in Baltimore.
Jesseca Kusher, 18, Spartanburg, South Carolina: “Sunscreen” for roofs
After taking an environmental science class, Jesseca began to ponder about ways to take better care of the environment in which we live. In particular, Jesseca tells IFLScience that she wanted to reduce the amount of ozone entering the lower layer of our atmosphere, the troposphere, which can act as a greenhouse gas and is thus largely considered a pollutant.
Since its formation requires heat and sunlight, Jesseca wanted to develop a way to reduce the amount of heat absorbed and retained by the urban environment. To do this, she designed a new coating, composed of the minerals mica, gypsum and graphite, which increases reflectance of roof shingles and thus reduces heat absorption.
Alongside having the potential to reduce smog production, this cool “sunscreen” could also have implications for sufferers of respiratory diseases like asthma, which can be worsened by ozone.
Makenzie and Madison Plyman, 17, Trussville, Alabama: 3D printed arsenic filter
Studies have estimated that close to 140 million people in more than 70 countries worldwide are likely affected by arsenic poisoning from drinking water. Although methods exist to remove it from water sources, these can cost up to a whopping $10,000. With this in mind, these bright twins created two filter systems for its removal from contaminated drinking water, one with a bead design and one with a pill design.
Their 3D printed filters are capable of filtering water contaminated with arsenic at levels significantly higher than the minimum amount considered to be dangerous by the Environmental Protection Agency (10 parts per billion). Furthermore, they both cost around $50, making them viable options for developing countries. The twins told IFLScience that the filters could also be applied to remove other chemicals like fluoride, so they hope to test out this possibility in the future.
Mihir Garimella, 15, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: FlyBot, an autonomous emergency response robot
Inspired by how fruit flies avoid swatters, Mihir wanted to create a flying robot that could dodge hazards like collapsing ceilings in emergency response situations. Having worked with robots for a few years, Mihir eventually came up with a small bot that could help first responders in certain emergencies. He created it by combining cheap sensing and processing hardware with biologically-inspired algorithms that he developed after analyzing how certain organisms, such as birds and flies, perceive their environments.
The end result was a completely autonomous robot which, for example, could be used by firefighters to find people trapped inside burning buildings. What’s even more impressive is that it costs between $100 and $200, while some manually-operated drones can cost thousands.
Mihir’s project won him two awards at the Google Science Fair, and he’s now continuing his work by attempting to tackle problems related to applying flying robots to emergency response, he tells IFLScience.