These ISEF Winners Offer Hope for the Future of Engineering

Bionic inchworms, modular robotics and a device for saving power from air conditioning are among the award-winning submissions at this year’s International Science and Engineering Fair.

I built a wind tunnel for my high school science fair. It used an old exhaust fan, and my dad got some dry ice to show how the air currents flowed over a model wing made from balsa wood.

I didn’t win, and that was 25 years ago. Science fairs have come a long way since then.

My little engineering project pales in comparison to the submissions for this year’s edition of the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), an annual event that hosts more than 1,500 high school students from around the world. ISEF alumni include Nobel Prize winners, MacArthur Fellows and even a prominent U.S. congresswoman with the initials A.O.C.

As I recall, the prize at my science fair was tickets to a science museum and a gift card worth a couple hundred dollars. Compare that to the grand prizes at ISEF: one $75,000 and two $50,000 college scholarships.

Such big prize money might shock old timers, but it seems wholly merited given the quality of the projects presented at ISEF 2023. Bionic inchworms for inspecting power lines, self-assembling robots for inventory management and a low-cost device for cutting air conditioner energy consumption are just a few of this year’s winning entries.

There are literally dozens of submissions from ISEF 2023 that have the potential to revolutionize science and engineering—as do their creators—but let’s focus on the three winners outlined above.

The Inchworm Robot with Skateboard

Image: ISEF/Yuyang Wang

Image: ISEF/Yuyang Wang

Our first project is a wonderful example of two of the core principles of robotics design: biomimicry and iteration.

Submitted by Yuyang Wang from Shaghai Pinghe Bilingual School in China, the winner of the Engineering Technology: Statics & Dynamics category is a robot designed to emulate the movements of caterpillars and inchworms.

While they certainly aren’t the speediest of creatures, these animals are uniquely capable of travelling along sticks, threads and other structures consisting of thin, elongated parts. A robot with similar capabilities could be useful for surveying high-risk environments such as overhead power lines or suspension bridges.

What’s particularly admirable about this submission is the amount of refinement that went into the robot’s design. The first two generations were designed to move along wires via a combination of servos and friction control on the robot’s legs. These were able to crawl along straight sticks ranging from 6 mm to 10 mm in diameter at speeds of approximately 3.9 mm/s.

The third- and fourth-generation robots were designed to mimic inchworms even more closely via a tandem servo structure that allows them to traverse curved structures, avoid obstacles and move along multiple lines simultaneously. As a result, the fourth-generation robots can move along sticks ranging from 15 mm to 30 mm in diameter.

The project also earned Wang a special ISEF prize, the Craig R. Barrett Award for Innovation.

Self-Assembling Modular Robots

Image:ISEF/Yik Chun

Image:ISEF/Yik Chun “John” Peng

Yik Chun “John” Peng from Shanghai American School – Puxi Campus in China won the Embedded Systems category with his self-assembling modular robotic system. The project’s goal was to produce a system of modules that had multiple degrees of freedom, wheel-based locomotion and the ability to carry loads without compromising mobility, all while serving as the building blocks for larger, more effective robots.

The robotic modules were constructed from laser-cut wood and 3D-printed polylactic acid (PLA) and driven by 298:1 micro gear motors that transfer movement to the side connectors, which also function as wheels. The modules connect to each other using 12V electromagnets. The robots also have Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, enabling them to be controlled via AprilTags (think simplified QR codes) combined with computer vision and proportional–integral–derivative (PID) controllers.

The modular robotic system was put through validation tests for speed in different assembly configurations, as well as its ability to transport cargo and the strength of the connections between individual modules.

Power Saving Device for Air Conditioners

Image:ISEF/Eugene Chen

Image:ISEF/Eugene Chen

Compared to robotics, a device for saving power on air conditioners might sound underwhelming, but a closer look reveals why this was the winning submission in the Energy: Sustainable Materials and Design category. Developed by Eugene Chen of Shanghai High School International Division in China, this project started from a practically Newtonian observation: water dripping down from a bank of air conditioners.

“That sparked my curiosity,” says Chen in his submission video. “After I got home, some research showed me that air conditioners use more than 20 percent of the power they consume to create this condensation of water.”

Combine that with the fact that air conditioning accounts for around 10 percent of global electricity consumption and the potential impact of this project becomes clear.

The device is powered by the airflow from the air conditioner cooling fan, which drives a propeller to power a micro air pump that produces compressed gas. The gas and water from condensation are mixed and sprayed onto the condenser with a Venturi nozzle, which lowers the temperature of the refrigerant in the condenser. This reduces the workload on the condenser, thereby cutting its energy consumption.

According to Chen’s calculations, the low cost (roughly $10 per unit) combined with the ease of installation (users can attach the device to a window AC unit from the inside) means that these devices could reduce global electricity consumption by one percent, if they were installed everywhere.

For his work, Chen also earned this year’s Peggy Scripps Award for Science Communication at ISEF.

More Incredible Submissions from ISEF 2023

The three projects outlined above are just a few of the submissions from this year’s Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair. From new designs for rocket nozzles to decentralized drone swarms, to metal-organic frameworks for capturing sulfur dioxide, there are so many projects created by the next generation of engineers and scientists that can give hope and inspiration to the current one.

Check out all the 2023 Finalist Projects right here on ProjectBoard.

Correction notice: Although asteroids have been named in honor of ISEF winners, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the practice is still in place.