Thomas James, a 17 year old Christchurch school student was announced as the winner of The Prime Minister’s 2019 Future Scientist Prize in June 2020. The Prize, worth $50,000, is awarded to either a Year 12 or Year 13 student who has undertaken an outstanding science, technology, mathematics or engineering project.

The Government of New Zealand introduced The Prime Minister’s Science Prizes in 2009 as a way of raising the profile and prestige of science among New Zealanders. There are five prizes in total with a combined value of 1 million dollars.

Thomas, who at the time was a year 13 student at Burnside High School, was motivated to design “Wheelie Drive” after noticing his elderly neighbour and grandparents struggling to use their wheelie bins.

Thomas commented that “There were many parts of this project that were challenging with one of the main challenges being the ability to navigate the robot down to the curb side reliably and with sufficient accuracy. “

For a student who doesn’t study technology or design, Thomas showed great tenacity in researching and problem solving. He used Lego models for his first prototype before learning about micro-processors, programming, autonomous navigation and sourcing the many intricate components he needed to build a full-size self-navigating robot. His nominator says he is a very talented engineer who’s developed and produced a system that adult technologists would struggle to design and make.

When asked about the growth of aerospace in Canterbury Thomas had some sophisticated thoughts on the topic “There are lots of young people who are interested in science and technology, the key thing is to plant the idea of the possibility of a career in aerospace. By encouraging and getting lots of young Cantabrians into Aerospace we can harness their ideas and creativity to further Canterbury and New Zealand’s position in this field.“

Thomas is planning on continuing with his study by undertaking Electrical or Mechanical engineering at the University of Canterbury.

Reference Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi