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Dr Who? Teen builds K-9 between cello practice and final-year exams

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Katie Cincotta

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Fast tracker: Part-time developer, full-time student, part-time musician, Adam Lloyd.

Fast tracker: Part-time developer, full-time student, part-time musician, Adam Lloyd. Photo: Getty Images/Wayne Taylor

As Dr Who tragics await the debut of the new, darker 13th iteration of the time lord played by Scottish actor Peter Capaldi, one young fan is regenerating an old character.

Year-12 student Adam Lloyd is building a replica K-9 robot, the mechanical best friend of fourth doctor Tom Baker who many regard as their favourite for his seven-year stint as the eccentric scarf-wearing alien from Gallifrey.

The Whovian from Geelong in regional Victoria is only 18 and already a part-time software developer with Skype programming credits to his name. Now he is resurrecting K-9 for his 2014 VCE Systems Engineering project, keen to engage fans with what he regards as one of the BBC series' unsung heroes.

"K-9 showed the loyalty and companionship of a dog with the wit of a time lord. My goal is to create a sidekick for my children's hospital visits," says the St Joseph's College student. He plans to take K-9 on the volunteer hospital and nursing home visits that he has been doing with school and intends to continue after graduation.

Lloyd has worked on his robot dog every day for the past 10 months, admitting it's a huge technical challenge to get all the electronics to happily talk to each other without loss of data and power.

"The K-9 project has more components than you can poke a sonic-screwdriver at, including 12 Arduino micro controller boards and probably enough wire to make it to Melbourne and back. At the moment he can drive around, the computer systems (primary brain) are online and his lights are working."

It's building K-9's smarts that will be the ultimate test for this young maker, who hopes the robot will be fully autonomous, able to navigate on his own through sensors and respond to his master's voice with head, tail, ear and neck movements, and his catchphrase, "Affirmative".

"He will also feature an LCD display in his side and a 60-inch projector, both powered by the Raspberry Pi. I want the display on his side to play Doctor Who episodes on the big screen as well as retro video games using wireless controllers."

Lloyd's systems engineering teacher Michael Davies has been supervising the ambitious project. The school has contributed $100 towards parts.

Davies admits he's never had a student raise funds for an assessment task, but isn't surprised by the resourcefulness of his star pupil, who manages to fit in programming for Skype – he has been working remotely coding Skype's integration with web browsers – between school, volunteer work, cello practice and orchestral arrangements.

"In fact he has actually introduced me to new ideas and concepts. Such is the pace of technology. Teaching this subject is never boring," says Davies.

While most entrepreneurs crowd-fund to help cover manufacturing costs, Lloyd's K-9 campaign on Indiegogo is also about education and collaboration.

"The Indiegogo campaign isn't fund motivated. I wanted a way to get my idea out there and get advice and support from those who like it. There was no manual for K-9. The community has been my greatest teacher … forums, hacker spaces, crowd-funding and my teacher, Mr Davies. When people are just as passionate as you are, and teach you from personal experience, the impact is much greater than following instructions."

While K-9 isn't practical for commercial mass production, Lloyd, who enjoys dressing up as the time lord at pop culture conventions, says his tribute does prove that robots can be more than just ideas from science fiction novels. Like Google's military robot Cujo, man-made androids are defining the evolution of computers.

The inspired teen, who is already working towards a mechatronics systems engineering degree at the Simon Fraser University, Canada, hopes to forge a career in technology, and encourages other kids to get in on the geek club movement.

"Electronics isn't as hard as you think. It's no longer for the nerds and geeks of the school, anyone can create amazing things with a little bit of know-how; and I hope K-9 sparks some interest."

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