Five kids designed a drone that could save millions of people from deadly diseases

A design for a drone that takes air samples and pictures to help aid agencies predict outbreaks of deadly diseases has won a major Microsoft award.

A group of teenagers from Peterborough School took the top prize in the STEM Student Challenge for their Asclepius Drone, which combines sensors, cameras, image recognition software and cloud computing.

Named after the Greek god of medicine, the drone is designed to improve the health of millions of people in the developing world.

Peterborough School - STEM Student Challenge

Peterborough School, winners of the STEM Student Challenge

It would be built from lightweight composite materials and could be launched from a vehicle, taking photos of the area as well as air samples. It could then return to the vehicle, where scientists could use image recognition technology to tag parts of the images that concern them. The information would then be uploaded to the cloud, where agencies such as the Red Cross and UNICEF can access it and, if necessary, provide assistance in the region before a major disease spreads.

The drone is only a concept but similar unmanned aircraft are already active in the world delivering medical supplies, tracking hurricanes and protecting wildlife. In 2013, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Saskatchewan used a Dragan Flyer X4-ES drone with heat-sensing equipment to find a disorientated man who had been injured in a car accident and wandered off in sub-freezing temperatures.

One of the winning pupils, 14-year-old Dyuti Chakraborty, said: “It feels amazing to win. It’s so great that our team was recognized for our idea, and all the hard work we put in has paid off. I really enjoyed the opportunity and it’s a very good way to encourage pupils to be inventive and think outside the box while raising awareness for STEM subjects. I enjoyed researching and finding out about developments in areas of technology I wouldn’t have normally looked into, and learning more about ordinary topics we cover in the classroom.”

Martin Webb, Head of Computing and Digital Strategy at the school, said the win would have a positive effect on every pupil he teaches.

“Not only will this encourage these students to invent the future, it will also encourage other pupils to become more involved in thinking about technology and what the world will be like in 10 years’ time. That will be when they are looking for their first job.

“These five students are my entire GCSE computing class, and I want more youngsters from years eight and nine to choose computer science. This competition has really helped to promote the subject already, as it was spot on in terms of what we should be teaching our children.”

Pupils from Brine Leas School, in Nantwich, Cheshire, who won the healthcare category

Pupils from Brine Leas School, in Nantwich, Cheshire, which won the healthcare category

The team from Peterborough beat 10 other entries to take top prize at the final of the Microsoft event, which encourages students to imagine what technology will be like in 2037 and design a product that could have an impact on the real world. Teams of between four and six pupils were asked to focus on artificial intelligence, virtual reality, data security or healthcare, and submit a video outlining their idea. Eleven groups were chosen for the grand final at Microsoft Research’s lab in Cambridge, whose staff work at the cutting-edge of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) to try to solve the world’s biggest problems.

Other entries – judged by scientist Sara-Jane Dunn, Principal Researcher Steve Hodges and Software Engineer Camilla Longden, who all work at the Cambridge site – included an interactive robotic pet that can help people who feel lonely; a contact lens that uses mixed reality technology to aid people with dementia, a headset that can create experiences to ease depression, and a portable alarm system that alerts people in developing countries to an imminent earthquake.

Find out more about the STEM Student Challenge

Four girls from Churcher’s College, in Petersfield, Hampshire, put forward their idea for a headset that would help people who are blind to navigate the world. Emma Leach, Immy Hyde, Charlotte Evans and Emily Knowlton, all aged 14, said they had been “inspired” by the STEM event.

“We are very excited to be doing this, it’s such a great environment and an amazing opportunity,” said Knowlton. Being here is very inspirational, knowing what has been produced here. It shows us what we can do and how we get there; it opens another door in terms of a career.”

Brine Leas School, in Nantwich, Cheshire, won the healthcare category with a pill that can monitor temperature in cancer patients to spot signs of Neutropenic Sepsis.

The condition develops when a person with very low levels of white blood cells due to chemotherapy suffers a septic response. As the immune system tries to fight off the infection, inflammation occurs and the body’s temperature rises.

The teenagers proposed a pill that can split into five parts and travel to different areas of the digestive system, after it has been swallowed and its outer shell has dissolved in the oesophagus. These different parts, which are powered by body heat, could send temperature readings via Bluetooth technology, giving doctors early warning signs of Neutropenic Sepsis.

George Smith, 13, said he helped design the pill after speaking to medical professionals.

“It mainly came about from us having parents in the healthcare field,” he said. “My dad was complaining about how long it takes to get a temperature reading. He agreed it would be helpful if someone could swallow a pill and he could get a reading.”

Smith’s teammate Andrew Bennett, also 13, spoke to his mum about the pill on the way home from school and they agreed it could be “useful”.

St Bernard's Catholic Grammar School, in Slough, won the AI category

St Bernard’s Catholic Grammar School, in Slough, won the AI category

Meanwhile, St Bernard’s Catholic Grammar School, in Slough, won the AI category with a plan to convert video into text and vice versa. It would be aimed at people with autism and those with hearing or sight loss.

The five-strong Peterborough team won £5,000 for their school to spend on computing equipment as well as a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 each.

St Bernard’s Catholic Grammar School and Brine Leas School were each awarded £1,500 for winning their respective categories, while their pupils each received a Minecraft Xbox One S bundle.

Dunn, from Microsoft, said: “All the entries were of a such a high calibre that it was very hard to choose a winner. All the pupils who entered the STEM Student Challenge should feel proud of the work they have put in. Hopefully they learnt as much about what the future of technology could hold as we did, listening to their ideas.

“Competitions such as these are so important in engaging young minds to create the next generation of technology. We can’t wait to see what will be entered in next year’s contest.”