'Something needs to be done about this': Inspired student's award-winning robot
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'Something needs to be done about this': Inspired student's award-winning robot

Building an autonomous robotic window cleaner for high-rise buildings while he was doing his HSC may have cost Oliver Nicholls a few ATAR points, but has led to him becoming the first Australian to win a major global science and engineering award.

The robot, which uses drones, motors and overlapping disks to clean windows, won Oliver the overall first prize at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Pennsylvania last week, as well as first place in the best in category award for physical sciences robotics and intelligent machines and two second-place awards.

Oliver Nicholls, 19, says winning the International Science and Engineering Fair was 'unbelievable, I was like hang on, is this real?'.

Oliver Nicholls, 19, says winning the International Science and Engineering Fair was 'unbelievable, I was like hang on, is this real?'.

"The inspiration came when I was in school and there was a gent cleaning the awning and he fell off and broke his leg," said Oliver, 19, who built the robot last year for his Design and Technology HSC course at Barker College.

"At the same time, there was a [platform] collapse in Sydney and two window cleaners were seriously injured. It made me think that something really needs to be done about this."

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Oliver said he built the robot almost entirely in his garage at home.

"Four years of robotics that I'd done previously in school gave me the skills and knowledge to do it but I built it at home almost entirely," he said.

"I had to learn to program to do the project, it was a lot of work. I definitely dropped marks in the HSC because of the project, but my teachers said it would pay off and it turned out well."

Oliver, who was competing against more than 1800 high school students from 75 countries, won more than $100,000 in prize money and said previous award winners have gone on to study at top universities such as MIT and Stanford.

Oliver Nicholls' window-cleaning robot in action.

Oliver Nicholls' window-cleaning robot in action. Credit:CSIRO

"I don't really know what I'll do with the money, the really simple answer is that I won't have a HECS debt when I leave uni," Oliver said.

"The more important thing is the contact with universities that really recognise this prize. It's as mind-boggling for me as it is for everyone else [that I won]."

Oliver said he was inspired to create the robot after seeing a window cleaner injure himself while working.

Oliver said he was inspired to create the robot after seeing a window cleaner injure himself while working. Credit:CSIRO

CSIRO's education and outreach director Mary Mulcahy said the process of identifying a problem, building a solution and improving it that Oliver used to develop the robot is an example of "a really high-level inquiry space, he's doing what scientists do".

"Project-based learning is not something Australia is traditionally known for, it's focused not on content but fostering curiosity and inquiry, and those are the skills we need in our students for the new jobs that are coming."

Co-ordinator of the Australian Young Scientist Awards, winners of which are selected to enter the International Science and Engineering Fair, Anjali Rao said Oliver's achievement highlights the strength of the NSW science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum.

"What he's done is achieve something that no other Australian student has ever gotten close to, winning the biggest STEM prize in the world for high school students, and he's done it by working within the curriculum, that's the most significant part," Ms Rao, who is also a science teacher at Castle Cove Public School, said.

Ms Rao said changes to a number of year 11 and 12 syllabuses from this year have further improved STEM education in NSW.

"We've made huge strides in giving students support if they want to extend themselves," Ms Rao said.

"We've now got depth studies as well as bringing in the science extension course, that's pretty revolutionary."

Oliver is currently in his first year of a mechatronic engineering degree at UNSW and said he got a provisional patent for his device this week.

"I haven't had the chance to contact industry but I'm definitely interested in keeping that ball rolling," Oliver said.