Meet six BrightSparks millennials engineering a better future
Image credit: RS Components
The BrightSparks programme – run by Electronics Weekly in partnership with RS Components – aims to support and celebrate the young electronic engineers striving to become the industry leaders of the future.
This year’s BrightSparks awards ceremony brought together 30 people under the age of 30 who are already making a difference in engineering with their technical ability, creativity, entrepreneurship and curiosity. Far from the lazy, entitled and avocado toast-obsessed stereotypes, these millennials are focused on developing technology to help the elderly and vulnerable, to put the fashion back into fashion tech and to implement a Hyperloop system in the UK.
Rachel Rui Wong, 23
Rachel is a tissue engineer by profession, using stem cells to grow eyeballs in the lab during the day and working on fashion tech in her spare time.
While many wearable technologies such as fitness trackers prioritise function and neglect style entirely, Rachel creates visually appealing clothing and jewellery incorporating electronics.
“I think that fashion affects a wide group of people: more people than those who care about how many calories they burn,” she says. “Everyone has to [make fashion choices] even if it’s just whether to wear a white t-shirt or a black t-shirt.”
She first got into fashion tech by adapting existing items of clothing, but wanting to create items that were entirely her own she decided to teach herself to sew, solder and cast, as well as learning to code and work with electronics. She often turns to resources like Twitter and Google, as well as maker spaces, to work around technical problems.
Becoming a maker, she says, helped lift her out of a period of unhappiness; at the end of her working day, she is always enthusiastic to go home and continue with her projects. As fashion tech remains a hobby, she finds that she can take time to enjoy learning new skills without being under pressure.
Rachel has exhibited her fashion tech pieces at the Mozilla Festival and the Derby Mini Maker Faire and also runs her own wearable tech workshops. You can see her latest fashion creations on Twitter.
Yi Chen Hock, 17
Yi Chen Hock, an A-Level student, was driven by enthusiasm for problem solving to take her sixth-form electronics project far beyond what was required of her.
Having built a simple keyboard the year before - inspired by her interest in music - this academic year, she decided it would be fun to create an 8-bit game. She used an Arduino, an 8x8 RGB dot matrix display and nine push buttons to bring to life her own versions of the classic games of Snake and Noughts and Crosses.
Yi Chen worked independently on the project, teaching herself Arduino programming and solving problems as they appeared. For instance, when generating the position of food items in Snake, she noticed the food was appearing in predictable locations due to the Arduino using a pseudo-random number generator. To work around this, she used the gameplay time as a way to generate unexpected positions for food items. By the end of the project – which required just three active devices – she had ended up incorporating nine.
“It didn’t take so long [to finish], I was just so excited to do it!” says Yi Chen, who was still keen to create more games by the end. She hopes to study electronics at a leading UK university.
Archie Roques, 19
Archie is a young engineer working as hardware director on an alarm system - dubbed the ‘Fall Alarm’ - which detects falls in elderly people and those with disabilities.
“This applies to such a range of people, we have all had elderly relatives,” he explained, “so it’s a very rewarding thing to work on and it does have the potential to save lives. There have been real situations in which this would have made a big difference.”
There are a number of products and services already available for those vulnerable to falls, such as emergency buttons, human monitoring or systems which automatically call emergency services. Jamie and his peers wanted to develop a reliable alternative which detects falls and automatically calls relatives, who can then decide on the appropriate course of action.
Leading on the hardware side of the project, Archie considers it important that the Fall Alarm uses cheap components and is a feasible candidate for long-term commercial manufacture. His team have already been through at least a half a dozen prototypes.
“We’re on our sixth or seventh prototype and it’s always the last one! But we’re getting there now,” Archie said. They hope to carry out testing and crowdfunding this year and make the Fall Alarm available soon afterwards.
Daniel Toth, 23
Daniel is a student at the University of Edinburgh who works on battery systems for Hyperloop systems in his spare time. He hopes to work with his peers to bring a Hyperloop to the UK.
The Hyperloop is a form of transport proposed by SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk, in which pods containing cars, passengers or cargo are whisked through vacuum tubes at near aircraft speeds above or below ground. Although no Hyperloop systems are yet under construction, the technology has attracted considerable interest from governments and investors.
Daniel got involved with HYPED – a group of ambitious Edinburgh students working on the technology alongside their university degrees – three years ago and has been designing the power systems, power electronics and battery packs for the system.
“I got motivated by [HYPED] and what the Hyperloop could do to a country, connecting all the cities to within an hour of each other,” he said. Although the group was small, it was dedicated and last year they found themselves earning a place as finalists in Elon Musk’s SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition: the only UK team to place.
They flew to SpaceX’s headquarters in California to take part in a week of 100 to 150 tests of their pod design, which performed well. While the competition prioritises speed, the HYPED team focused their attentions more on passenger experience, designing a large pod which could feasibly be used in a real Hyperloop system.
This year, he is heading up a power electronics team of 12 people and he hopes to take his 300kW system – which uses 864 battery cells – to the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod finals once again. Aside from their competition bid, the team is also working on a successor to Musk’s original white paper, which accounts for research into the technology conducted in the years since it was published.
Once he graduates, Daniel hopes to continue working on Hyperloop technology, potentially bringing a Hyperloop system to the UK. Already, HYPED is consulting with some government representatives on how and where a Hyperloop could be implemented.
Edwards Evans, 18
Edward Evans is a modest teen engineer spending his gap year working part-time as a stage technician.
“I’ve always enjoyed the idea of creating something with lighting,” he says. Evans began working on stage tech for creative productions around lessons at secondary school, searching eBay for the best components to help put on a spectacular show. For the last few years, he has worked at home with an Arduino to create increasingly spectacular sound-to-light Christmas light shows. His most recent show featured 3,000 serial-addressed pixel LED lights strung up in his family garden, also incorporating music and fireworks.
Now on his gap year, he works part-time as a Creative Arts Technician for his former college. Other projects have included a 32-camera CCTV system and high-end PCs for his father’s business; Evans has been building his own PCs since the age of 13.
Ruth Amos, 29
Ruth is dedicated to engaging younger children - particularly young girls - with STEM subjects.
She first gained prominence in the engineering community thanks to a GCSE project in which she developed a system (‘StairSteady’) to assist people with limited mobility in using staircases: a project which won her Young Engineer for Britain in 2006. The project put her in touch with the world of engineering, in which she met relatable women who made her consider engineering as a career for the first time.
“When I was younger, I didn’t want to be an engineer, I wanted to be a lawyer,” Ruth says. “I almost missed out on a career that I love: how did that happen?”
Since then, she has worked to promote STEM subjects and subsequent careers among young people who may have never considered engineering or other technical careers. While many STEM engagement efforts focus funding on GCSE-age students, she focuses on younger age groups - particularly young girls. At this age, girls are less likely to be exposed to the idea that engineering is a “masculine” field and, as a result, they are just as enthusiastic and confident as the boys.
She co-founded a YouTube channel called “Kids Invent Stuff”, which encourages children to submit creative ideas for inventions - such as a giant cake with wheels or a jam-firing rocket - which Ruth and her colleague turn into reality in the channel’s weekly episodes.
YouTube is not only popular with children, it’s also a flexible and responsive platform, Ruth says, which makes it ideal for directly engaging with children.