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Students proving age is no barrier to robotics

November 7, 2019

Trades Academy Computer Technology Drone making class

The most popular programme at the Tairāwhiti Trades Academy at EIT this year would have to be the Level 3 Trades Academy Computer Technology drone making course, which has achieved the highest attendance rate on campus.  

This year the programme project focussed on designing and constructing an obstacle avoiding drone.

It attracted students seeking a more challenging project and provided them with a range of technological skills, paving the way towards careers and studies in some rapidly growing new fields.  The curriculum includes technologies such as 3D design and manufacturing, electronics and coding.  

“These students are learning some difficult materials, such as algebraic formulae and engineering design concepts,” says lecturer Steve Main.  “But they are learning it quickly because they enjoy it.” 

The big drawcard is applying the theory into designing and producing their own drones. 

Some of the students had already completed the level 2 robotics course the previous year with at least one student staying on at school specifically to participate in the drone course. 

The Trades Academy programme is designed to help secondary school students try a vocation they are interested in and has attracted students from as far away as Ngata College in Ruatoria and Wairoa College. It enables students to gain NCEA credits specific to their chosen path of study. 

“The programme encompasses four Achievement Standards which allows them to gain university entrance in computing and electronics,” says Steve. 

Theoretic requirements, such as Civil Aviation regulations around flying drones, are intertwined with the practical work and readily absorbed by the students. 

They research and design their own drone platform using digital systems.  

Once they have designed their frames, they move onto a computer numerically controlled (CNC) router, creating a mock drone frame to identify any design changes required. 

When they have proof their concept is viable, the cutting of the frame from carbon fibre can commence. A 3D printing machine is used to print auxiliary components layer by layer. 

The EIT Technology Lab has two large commercial machines, one of which is capable of printing UV cured resin and rubber down to 32 microns. 

Once the drone components are assembled, the next step is to create their own printed circuit board (PCB) and transmitter. 

Some of the components used were recycled from computer waste collected by the Tairāwhiti Environment Centre. 

This semester the students are beginning to fly their drones and make necessary modifications. There is a buzz in the room and their enjoyment is obvious. The students are engrossed. 

“Some have enjoyed the computer aided design component so much they are moving towards pursuing engineering and electronic fields,” says Steve. 

“All the software we use is freeware or has an education licence, so students have access to the programmes at home” he says. 

Campion College student Matthew James, 17, says he heard about last year’s Trades Academy robotics course at school and quickly got his name onto it. 

“I love electronics and always have,” he said. Among some of his home projects, he has built his own computers and created an artistic LED lighting arrangement for his mother.  He stayed on at school this year specifically to do the Trades Academy programme one day a week. 

“I have hated school all my life but I am really enjoying this. I am doing the level 4 programme fulltime next year towards doing the computing degree at EIT after that.” 

He will be joined in his studies by quite a few of his classmates, most if not all of whom are planning careers in this field. 

As part of the programme, they have created their own personal blogs recording the progress of their drone. 

“I would be confident in saying that we are the only place in New Zealand that has attempted this project with high school students” says Steve. 

The outcomes have been hugely successful. 

One of Steve Main’s robotics students is well on his way towards doing a medical degree, with dreams of becoming a surgeon in a field that will increasingly use robotics. 

“The use of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming more integral in most professions and this will continue to increase substantially in the near future,” says Steve.  “A number of Gisborne companies are already implementing automation in the workplace — there will be a growing need for robotic engineers and programmers.” 

Due to the success of the Trades Academy Robotics programme, Steve Main is now teaching a Bachelor of Computing Systems course – The Internet of Things –offered at the EIT Tairāwhiti campus.