Teens win trip to Costa Rica at annual National Robotics Competition

Dong Ruidi and Ng Chee Fong of Fuhua Secondary School won the World Robot Olympiad category.
Dong Ruidi and Ng Chee Fong of Fuhua Secondary School won the World Robot Olympiad category.PHOTO: NATIONAL ROBOTICS COMPETITION
The winners of the Junior WeDo Challenge from The School of Robotics (ZLearnED).
The winners of the Junior WeDo Challenge from The School of Robotics (ZLearnED).PHOTO: NATIONAL ROBOTICS COMPETITION

SINGAPORE - The doomsday clock is ticking and the young computer whizz has to override a sophisticated computer program to save the day.

A typical scene in a movie perhaps but 14-year-old Dong Ruidi (Sec 2) and 15-year-old Ng Chee Fong (Sec 3) had no less drama at the World Robot Olympiad category of the annual National Robotics Competition (NRC) in Singapore on Thursday (Sept 7).

While building a robot for the event, the Fuhua Secondary School students were given a "surprise rule" - a modified set of tasks for which they had only a few hours to reprogram their robot.

It was tense but they did it, winning the secondary school category and a trip to Costa Rica in November to compete with students in their age group in the World Robot Olympiad proper.

"The best part is seeing it work - it motivates you to continue," said Chee Fong, who with Ruidi designed and built their robot with Lego Mindstorms, a robotics kit containing Lego bricks, sensors and software.

The robot's mission was to recognise objects by colour, pick them up and reposition them in pre-defined areas according to a set of rules.

They spent about 20 hours a week over the last few months, going through five or six different prototypes before coming up with the perfect machine.

Chee Fong, who watched scores of YouTube videos of robots and teamed up with Lego fan Ruidi, explained that their robot had "grab-and-lift" mechanisms that could pick up objects more effectively than the competition as it had longer arms with greater tolerance for inaccuracy.

The NRC, previously known as the National Junior Robotics Competition, is organised by Science Centre Singapore (SCS) and has seen more than 50,000 participants since its inception in 1999.

This year, SCS collaborated with local education consultancy Duck Learning and increased the maximum participating age to 25. The minimum age is six.

Entries included robotic arms that pick and stack containers and mockups of robot designs that purify water using solar power and use the water to irrigate plants.

"It is about getting students to experience science and technology that they don't get to do in their normal curriculum," said Mr Daniel Tan, senior director of projects and exhibitions at Science Centre Singapore.

"It exposes them to real-world applications by bringing something highly technical to a simple level," he added.

Maha Bodhi School primary one pupil Aaron Tan, 7, and his two teammates won the Junior category of the competition with a robot similar to Chee Fong's.

The team was fielded by ZLearnED, a local education centre that conducts robotics classes.

"The hardest part is to press the correct button (on an iPad) so that I don't hit anything, otherwise we will lose points," he said.

Aaron's father has already bought him own robotics kit, but is not allowing him to open the box until after the exams.

The boy is already dreaming of bigger robotic exploits ahead.

"My next aim is to make a big robot that can move super fast and can pick up anything," he said.