Pupils let loose 600 robots to fight for Olympiad honours

This year's UAE competitions, themed around workplace efficiency, have had about 600 teams of three students sign up - a huge increase on the 130 teams last year.

ABU DHABI - 04MAY2011 - Students watch Robot step climbing competition games at World Robots Olympiad WRO Arabia yesterday at Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC). Ravindranath K / The National
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ABU DHABI // Robots that pick dates, clean windows or fight fires have swung into action as pupils vie for a place in the World Robot Olympiad in the capital.

This year's UAE competitions, themed around workplace efficiency, have had about 600 teams of three students sign up - a huge increase on the 130 teams last year.

One hundred UAE teams will make it through to the international competition, which will be held at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre next month - the first time the finals have been held outside of Asia. The UAE winners will be named next week.

Last year, fewer than 30 UAE teams went to the international finals in the Philippines.

The world event, which challenges participants to build climbing and racing robots out of Lego components, also includes a robot football category.

The robots use software and a microchip controller "brick" to act as the robot's brain.

The Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec), which organises the national heats, distributed 10 of the kits to each state school in Abu Dhabi last year and has been training teachers to incorporate the kits into their maths, science and technology curriculums.

"We want this project to become integrated into teaching methodology and our new school model," says Dr Najla Al Naqbi, the programme manager at Adec.

"These are the kinds of skills that will prepare students for work in engineering or in the semiconductor industry, aviation or the country's nuclear programme."

Kerry Bailey, a special adviser at Adec, says he has seen students coming back to the competition each year with better robots.

"Keeping this project going as they get older, it means there will be a generation of kids developing the ability to work with this technology, to do the problem solving and have that creativity to head straight into technological careers," Mr Bailey says.

Alyaa Obaid, 15, from Jumeirah Primary School, has developed a concept robot that is meant to climb a date palm and pick the fruit, using ultrasonic sensors.

Alyaa was inspired to design it after her uncle was bitten by a snake on his date farm.

"This idea could help protect a farmer from danger," she says.

Humaid Al Aamri, 17, from the Applied Technology High School in Ras Al Khaimah, heard news reports of window cleaners falling to their deaths and decided to develop a robot that could scale buildings and do the job.

Other concepts included robots that sense heat to trigger a fire extinguisher; balance and package eggs; cut grass; and empty liquid containers along a conveyer belt, which would be important in the chemicals industry.

"It is amazing to see how these kids are thinking now, the imagination and development of such unique concepts," says Mr Bailey.

"With this year's theme of life and work improvement they are given a large scope and we have seen a really interesting range of ideas."