To most of us, robots belong in the realm of fantasy: we know of them from films, from science fiction shows and from children’s cartoons. They’re the playthings of the eccentric, probably developed somewhere in Japan and – if those films are anything to go by – destined to wage war with the human race in the next century or so. But few of us actually know anything about what they really do, even fewer possess one.
Yet one student from the University of Southampton does own a robot. In fact, he designed and built it. His story is extraordinary and his achievements look to be the first signs of a career which will prove far more impressive than any science fiction.
In March 2011, precisely a year before last weekend’s 2012 competition, Andrew Cowan became the UK Young Engineer of the Year at the British Science Association’s ‘Big Bang Fair’ in London. As a military parade blasted out a fanfare and confetti tumbled from the roof, Andrew stood beside Professor Brian Cox in front of a thousand spectators, clutching his new trophy.
Andrew was rewarded generously: a £2,000 first prize and a choice of complimentary trips. He opted for a two week guided tour around NASA’s facilities at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and the Johnson Space Centre in Houston. He also won a trip to the Canary Islands provided by the Research Council UK so that he could visit the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes, situated on a dormant volcano 2,400 metres above sea-level.
Understandably, competition for the UK Young Engineer of the Year is somewhat fierce. Andrew had to go through a regional heat held in Reading before he could progress to the Big Bang Fair itself. There he faced several rounds of judges, all industry experts. Andrew and his project excelled and on the first evening he was informed that he had made it into the final, an ordeal which provided the biggest grilling of all with a nail-biting 30 minute Dragon’s Den style interview.
What clinched the victory for Andrew was the genius of his project, a Search and Rescue Robot for use in emergency situations. The idea for the machine was one he had come up with in school and was based on the need for cheaper models of its kind.
Andrew explains: “Search and Rescue robots are currently manufactured by a small number of companies, but they are very specialist and expensive pieces of equipment, costing in excess of £400,000. I decided to make my robot a low cost version – if I could design it to be sold for around £1,500, it would be accessible to low income countries and local fire and rescue departments.”
The robot began as AS Level coursework but Andrew quickly realised the potential of his creation. Seeking sponsorship from engineering companies, he made numerous modifications and upgrades. “I spent almost every waking hour for two years thinking about or working on the robot.”
The toil unsurprisingly earned him a 100% score in both his AS and A2 but Andrew was reluctant to finish with his pride and joy, so the work on it continued through till university where he is now a second year engineering student.
His completed Search and Rescue robot is worthy of the time that has gone into it. Andrew wanted it to be of use in the most extreme of environments and so the machine has an assortment of features.
Tracks have been fitted to enable the robot to climb over obstacles and up stairs. Two high traction toothed belts, coupled with two one-horse-power motors, give the robot a hefty 1,000 Newtons of pulling force – easily enough to tow a car or a large piece of rubble.
In case Andrew’s robot is required in the flames, he has attached a fire extinguisher capable of emitting a high power jet of water or carbon dioxide. In addition he has installed a siren, a horn and a bank of 96 LED floodlights which can be used to light up an area or attract attention.
In order to make controlling his vehicle as easy as possible, Andrew made a portable control interface which displays a live video feed from the robot’s high definition camera. Finally, a wireless link, controlled by a touch screen, sends back data including internal and external temperature, light levels, carbon dioxide levels, flammable gas levels, the speed of each motor, GPS location, the gradient of the robot, battery voltage and current.
But could all of this be of any practical use, beyond winning numerous accolades and awards? Andrew thinks so.
“Yes, I think that the robot could be used in a real life scenario, although I’m planning to do further testing and development on it. I’m considering working on it for my final year project at University if that’s possible, to make the electronics higher power and more efficient.”
Andrew’s own future looks equally optimistic. After graduation, he will work as an electrical engineer at a top technology organisation which helped fund the robot and which is currently sponsoring him through university.
His tenure as Young Engineer of the Year has now come to an end, but he values the chance it gave him to speak to school students about the importance of studying engineering.
“Engineering currently has a very poor image as a career,” says Andrew. “The stereotype is someone who comes to fix your central heating. I’m hoping to inspire young people, showing them engineering is exciting, creative, and far from the stereotype.
The subject clearly means a lot to him. Southampton University is famously a world class institution for this field of study, and the Electronic Engineering with Mobile and Secure Systems student earnestly extols his chosen vocation.
“Engineering is exciting – it’s all about problem solving. There aren’t many other jobs which leave you free to use your skills and creativity to track down and eliminate a problem. Engineering is also the basis of all the technological developments that we take for granted and need for our future. From clean drinking water to the internet, engineering is the foundation of modern society.”