Operation Santa Claus

Underwater robot challenge looks to whet appetite of disabled students for career in engineering

Youngsters from mainstream schools join those with special educational needs in competition to assemble and pilot robots through sub-aqua obstacles

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 4:23pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 7:34pm

An underwater robot assembled and piloted by visually impaired students left spectators in awe as it slithered through obstacles in a pool as agile as a water snake at the Underwater Robot Challenge.

Guided by a team of five students from the Ebenezer School and Home for the Visually Impaired, the robot went up against creations from 24 other teams that included youngsters from both mainstream schools and those for students with special educational needs.

The competition, held in April, is organised by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which is now gearing up for 2017’s event with a HK$75,000 donation from Operation Santa Claus, the annual charity campaign organised by the South China Morning Post and RTHK.

The challenge aims to bring together mainstream students and those from special needs schools through a shared love of engineering. It is looking to recruit 40 teams for next year’s competition.

Participants spend three days assembling their robots from loose components and later manoeuvring them to accomplish a series of tasks in a swimming pool. The underwater challenges range from going through tunnels to picking up metals.

Engineering professor Tim Woo Kam-tim, an organiser of the event, said he had marvelled at the teamwork and piloting skills shown by the team from Ebenezer at this year’s event.

He said the team had employed “an effective division of labour” which had empowered them to be successful controlling the robot.

The message is that physical disabilities do not limit them from accomplishing what they want to do
Winnie Sau Man-tuen

One student with better vision became the “eye” of the team, handing out verbal commands by the poolside, while a student with a better sense of direction was given the controller which directs the robot.

One team even successfully used sign language to issue commands to each other on how to manoeuvre the device.

“It was very loud at the competition and lots of people were having a hard time listening to one another,” Woo said. “But their own way of communication was very successful.”

Winnie Sau Man-tuen, a programme manager at the university, said a quarter of the participants were students with disabilities or special educational needs.

She said the competition was a perfect platform for people to learn about and appreciate the strengths of those who live with disabilities.

“The message is that physical disabilities do not limit them from accomplishing what they want to do,” she said.

She said the competition also aimed to encourage students with special educational needs to pursue engineering and science.

“Many students we have come into contact with have shown interest in science and engineering,” she said. “We are just giving them a little nudge to make them feel more confident.”

Registration for next year’s event opened last week and the contest will be held on April 1, 2, 8 and 9.