Soccer robots score big at tech awards

By Errol Kiong

Like tiny mechanised David Beckhams, the two soccer-playing robots designed by Epsom teenager Martin Spencer track, chase and score goals.

Just about the only thing the robotic pair cannot do is blub like a baby when England bow out of the World Cup yet again.

The King's College student's remarkable creations have won him a prize at one of the country's top competitions for young inventors.

The Bright Sparks HiTech Awards, which take place at Auckland's SkyCity Convention Centre today, showcase the talents of some of this country's technically-savviest young people.

Winning entries range from a pet food protector, which prevents non-residents from stealing the family moggy's food, to an elaborate combat simulator.

Run by industry training organisation ETITO, the awards, which open for the 2006 PricewaterhouseCoopers Hi Tech Awards, aim to help develop a strong pool of talent for the electronics industry.

For Martin Spencer, the awards are the culmination of 18 months' work that began with an assignment from his technology class.

The 17-year-old confesses that he's not a big football fan but chose to develop the project further "as a challenge".

The robotic pair's soccer-playing ability stems from five different sensors, which include an electronic compass, two ultrasonic sensors to detect walls and a "fly eye" with seven infrared sensors for a 180-degree field of view.

A microchip processor co-ordinates the various movements and functions.

The pairing won the teenager the RoboCup Junior championship in Wellington recently - the robotic equivalent of the national junior soccer champs.

Martin does not intend to stop inventing; he plans to study mechatronics at Auckland University once he finishes school.

Bright Sparks manager Ross Petersen said Martin's creation was similar to that of a third-year engineering student's, attesting to the calibre of this year's 120 entries from schools around the country.

He said entries were becoming more sophisticated as technology such as programmable chips became more accessible. Many entrants already made their own circuitboards.

"All the tools are already there. The only thing that limits kids is their creativity."

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