Emirati students show off engineering prowess for UAE Innovation Challenge 2014
Inside a marquee, Salem Al Marri leans over a table covered in paper, tools and two miniature aeroplanes, perspiring. Around him, groups of students murmur with anticipation. He writes ‘1337’ on the side of one of the planes, and takes it outside. The 19-year-old, and six teammates, are about to see if their unmanned aircraft is up to the task of winning a student engineering competition. They throw it into the air and watch it propel itself upwards, emitting a high pitched wail.
This is UAE Innovation Challenge 2014, the fourth of its kind. It was held in the capital this week, in an attempt to encourage more Emiratis to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem).
The Innovation Challenge brought together almost 100 students from across the country compete in teams to build the best unmanned aircraft. It was organised by the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), in conjunction with the aerospace company Northrop Grumman and Abu Dhabi Autonomous Systems Investments (Adasi).
Doug Raaberg, the chief executive for Northrop Grumman in the UAE, says the competition’s main aims were to encourage diversity, increase Emirati participation in Stem fields and foster international partnership.
“To date, a total of 308 Emirati students have participated in this competition,” he says. “I’m very excited about this because it began with 63 students in 2011. We’ve grown successfully from 72 students in 2012 to 77 students in 2013 and now we’ve had the most exciting jump of all – 96 students.
“The UAE is going to make a tremendous impact on the world in terms of aviation and science and the skill sets that are needed to do that requires the leaders that are out there on the field today.”
The 14 teams began with little or no hands-on experience of building autonomous vehicles. However, they worked with HCT staff and Northrop engineers for six months in preparation for the event.
Sultan Karmostaji, HCT’s director of Abu Dhabi Colleges, says that in the past, young Emiratis often pursued administrative jobs over those in the fields of science and technology because they were perceived to be easier.
“But,” he adds, “the higher government created Abu Dhabi Science Festival because there is a sense that if you make the science and technology hands on and interesting, students will come”.
He says the hands-on approach of the Innovation Challenge helps to build on the classroom education that students gain at university.
In terms of female participation in Stem subjects, it is surprisingly high.
“We have more than 150 women studying in Men’s Colleges because sometimes we have logistical problems – we cannot just create another aviation lab in the Women’s College, and we have one in the Men’s College. So they say, ‘no problem, we’ll take provision from our parents and we’ll study in the Men’s College’.”
The Adasi representative Fahad Al Absi says the process of encouraging Stem learning is a gradual one because although anybody can study science, not everyone understands what they can achieve through it.
“A lot of graduates, even up to postgraduates or masters in engineering, are not actually developing the next amazing engine that we are going to use in our commercial flights. This initiative is just the beginning of what could become a larger movement towards allowing people to dream beyond what they study, and allowing people to implement, create, innovate,” he says.
Support from the government and foreign entities, helps universities and colleges to gain exposure, he adds, which will in turn facilitate more grants and will expose more young Emiratis to the benefits of studying Stem subjects.
To date, the competition’s most successful team has been the Emirates Robotics Team from Dubai Men’s College, which won in both 2011 and last year.
This year’s team included a mix of both experienced and new entrants. One such first-timer is Mr Al Marri, a second-year electronic engineering student and the team’s leader.
“Starting from scratch, the design takes a day and then the building takes a day or two,” says Mr Al Marri. “We made this one in less than 14 hours. We crashed around seven aircrafts, so we know what we’re doing now.”
The orange aircraft, named “1337” – a video-gamer’s slang for Elite – stayed in the air for more than 13 minutes. However, the team was penalised for not meeting all its objectives, reducing the time to eight minutes.
“I found myself working until night because I wanted to win this with my team,” adds Mr Al Marri. “I think I went beyond my limits. I had limits – ‘today, I’ll work for two hours’ – but then I find myself working for eight hours without a break. I never thought I could do that.”
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Updated: April 23, 2014 04:00 AM