Student’s wheelie bin robot invention earns him $50,000 science award


Lego, an analytical mind and a desire to solve a problem have earned a Christchurch student the $50,000 Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize.

Burnside High School year 13 student Thomas James spent two years designing a robot to take wheelie bins to and from the kerb for the elderly and disabled.

The idea came to him after his neighbour’s doctor told her she should not be taking her bin out as she was likely to have a fall.

Burnside High School student Thomas James with his Wheelie Drive invention.

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Burnside High School student Thomas James with his Wheelie Drive invention.

“My grandparents also have a really long driveway and they don’t use their wheelie bin because of the inconvenience of taking it out,” he said.

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Thomas, 17, consulted with potential users, Age Concern and waste collection company Waste Management, and began by computer modelling prototype designs.

From there he created small-scale Lego models to test the designs’ feasibility, before building a full-size robot, working with detailed electronics and computer programming.

It wasn’t a smooth journey, however, with the first efforts proving unsuccessful and sending him back to the drawing board.

Burnside High School student Thomas James has won the Prime Minister's Future Scientist award.

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Burnside High School student Thomas James has won the Prime Minister’s Future Scientist award.

He also had issues getting the navigation right, as the robot made errors with distance and bearings, sometimes sending the wheelie bin into the garden or onto the road.

“There was definitely a time where I thought I am not going to be able to improve the navigation. [But] when you get stuck in one area you just put it on hold and keep it in the back of your mind and work on something else.

“You’re always brainstorming and when a breakthrough happens it can be from an idea you had way earlier.”

Sadly Thomas’ neighbour and inspiration for the project died in 2018 so was not able to see the final result, but Thomas is determined to help others with his invention.

The project was inspired after seeing his grandparents and elderly neighbour struggling to take the bins out.

Scott Hammond/Stuff

The project was inspired after seeing his grandparents and elderly neighbour struggling to take the bins out.

He was now working to improve the robot’s navigation reliability and intelligence so it could identify objects obstructing its path, before looking into mass production.

Burnside head of technology John Creighton said he had watched Thomas grow over time with his ability to think through a problem thoroughly before tackling it.

“It’s fantastic to see students break through a traditional limit and extend and go beyond,” he said.

“When a student does that it’s encouraging for all staff and students.”

University of Canterbury associate professor of the department of mechanical engineering Don Clucas, who nominated Thomas for the award, said he was a very talented engineer.

“He has produced a system that many adult technologists would struggle to design and make.

“This has required learning about micro-processors, programming, autonomous navigation, where to find components and how to make things that work on a limited budget.

“I have no doubt he will be a very successful engineer, innovator and entrepreneur. New Zealand needs more like him.”

Thomas plans to study Mechanical Engineering or Mechatronics Engineering at the University of Canterbury, and will invest the winnings in his future education.



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