From child's play to breakthrough

By Beth A. Birmingham | Mar 14, 2013
Photo by: Beth A. Birmingham Showing the autonomous robot he built from scrap is Ben Rawstron, a junior at Medomak Valley High School. Assistant Principal Andrew Cavanaugh listens as the teen explains how the steering mechanism works.

Waldoboro — Usually playing with Legos as a child does make an inventor. However, for Ben Rawstron of Waldoboro his Lego experience has led to much more than just a childhood memory.

Rawstron, a 16-year-old junior at Medomak Valley High School, enjoys evaluating and solving problems of the electronic kind.

"He is very unique," said MVHS Assistant Principal Andrew Cavanaugh about Rawstron. "He sees a system and thinks about it, then figures out a way to solve a problem by designing his own."

"I've had an interest in electronics since I was a little child," Rawstron said. "Of course, my parents want me to become a lawyer or a doctor," he said, explaining that his father's background is in engineering and his mother's has been in the medical field.

The electronics guru has worked on and designed products such as a solar battery charger for a boat motor, skylight sensor to tell the window it needs to be closed because it is raining, and a special garage door opener.

The most important idea behind the solar battery charger is the design of the indicator, which shows the voltage status. The indicator light shows it is working and charged. Rawstron designed the circuit board for the indicator. He had to program codes into the board so the indicator knows what time of day it is.

"I can look down at the dock, see the light on the boat, and know I don't have to worry if it storms," said Rawstron.

"He doesn't have to worry that the boat will fill with water because the bilge pump failed," Cavanaugh said.

"It could be multifaceted in its use in remote buildings when you have to have something running and charged all the time," said Rawstron.

Most notable, Rawstron designed a solar hot water controller for a water heater that he feels rivals the top units currently available. The screen display that shows what pumps are running and the varying temperatures is "less cumbersome and at a glance you can see what's going on," Cavanaugh said.

According to Rawstron, "That's a huge advantage to the homeowner," as it is more user-friendly. "There may be other components in there that are his own creation," Cavanaugh said.

That is where a possible patent  would come in.

"My family was talking about implementing solar in our house for quite some time," he said. They had to find an installer for the unit. "Of course, I wanted to take part in the design for my own educational purposes and for college application," he said.

After coming up with the idea in December 2011, Rawstron designed the unit and "it has been operational for a month. All the hot water used at our house depends on this controller," he stated.

"This was quite a step outside of my realm," Rawstron said. His family had difficulty finding an installer that would work with a 16 year old. Finally Vaughan Woodruff of Insource Renewables agreed to help.

Woodruff, a teacher and technical writer on solar thermal technology, worked alongside Rawstron to check and verify the design.

"It was a very challenging project," said Woodruff, adding "it was very custom and an impressive design for a 16 year old."

"As a person who taught high school and continuing ed it's refreshing to see a teenager committed to learning. Someone who takes initiative," he said.

Rawstron's interest in inventing things came at a young age. "When I was 5 or 6 years old, I got a Legos Mindstorm Set," he said, explaining the set had basic introduction to motors and sensors. His interest in programming began.

"I became interested in wanting to control my world using electronics and technology," he said.

He went on to explain he had never had any pets, and as an only child he would get lonely. So at the age of 8 or 9, he made his own playmate out of Legos. The robotic friend kept him entertained, although it couldn't help out with the chores.

"My mom suggested I tape a sponge to its backside," he said, to help with cleaning the floors.

Taking things apart and figuring out what every piece does is a passion of Rawstron's.

"Old mechanical parts are a marvel of engineering," he stated.

Rawstron's parents, Ming and David, nurtured his interest in electronics with visits to the Boston Science Museum.

"It gave me a great foundation," he said about receiving a scholarship to courses at the museum several summers in a row. It also helped him with math, which is a vital component for programming electronics.

"My best ideas seem to come to me between 11 and 12 at night," Rawstron said. In fact, the steering system he put on his robotic friend is one of his best achievements. Rawstron does most of his work in a wood shop his dad has in the basement of their home.

He said his favorite piece of equipment is a little Dremel tool, which he uses to drill the tiny holes in the circuit boards he fabricates. "I'm very fond of that," he said. Parts for his projects are acquired through various sources.

Rawstron has spent time at the Crosby Lab at the University of Maine at Orono working on biomechanics and in the wireless department at a NASA-funded Wisenet Laboratory. An array of processors were being used at these labs by a variety of different students.

That is where he was introduced to C language. "My parents had told me if I was serious about programming I should get into C language," which he said is a "universal programming language that a lot of businesses and companies use."

"The most valuable skill set that Ben has is he can identify a problem, and make it more efficient," Cavanaugh said. "Most people would except the way things are," he said. "Ben can design it and put it into play."

One of the areas of concern now in Rawstron's development is "protecting his intellectual property," said Cavanaugh. If Rawston has improved upon what exists out there now and "it truly does have value," he said. "We can help him to take advantage of that."

What he would be looking into is called a patent.

"He's got a lot of these things in his head," said Cavanaugh about Rawstron. "It's refreshing talking to him," he said. "He has all the tools to make a bright future."

Rawstron said his main objective is to "solve applications that can easily be used."

"I want to design things that can run by themselves," he said, adding "I don't want my parents to have to worry about it."

Courier Publications reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or by email at bbirmingham@courierpublicationsllc.com.

 

 

 

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