March 17, 2017

Nigeria’s Robotics Whizkid

Robotics Engineering is an integration of Electronics, Electrical, Computing, Mechanical and Material Engineering, dealing with designs, manufacturing and use of robots for control, sensory feedback and information processing. As robots can replicate almost any form of human activity, they are now being deployed in danger prone instances, such as bomb detection and de-activation.

Sounds quite technical? Chinemelu Ezeh makes it seem like a piece of cake. He considers his chosen field as the ultimate marriage of the different areas of engineering as one who can master the field of Robotics will be one of the most versatile and most complete engineers. With a three year scholarship for a Doctorate Degree in Assistive Robotics from the University College London, he is currently working to develop novel control interfaces for sharing control between a wheelchair user and a smart wheelchair.

“Since Robotics is versatile, it finds applications, is just about any field from finance, electrical to mobile to online e-commerce. The skills gained from studying robotics are easily translatable to other fields and this opens up many doors anywhere, Nigeria included,” he said in an interview conducted online with THISDAY.

Ezeh’s knack for the sciences has always shone through. While a student at the Nigerian Tulip International Colleges (formerly Nigerian Turkish International Colleges) in Abuja, he garnered awards and prizes like they were pieces of cake. He bagged the 1st runner-up in Abuja, in both instances in the Junior and Senior categories of the Cowbell Mathematics Competition, and later emerged as Bronze medalist, Infomatrix Computer Olympiad held in Romania in 2006. He also helped programme the robot for the project that won silver in the Informatrix competition. In 2007, he emerged Silver Medalist at the Science and English Fair, in Turkey, while in 2008, he placed 7th place in the Nigerian National Mathematics Olympiad.

It was therefore no surprise that Ezeh passed his WAEC/SSCE in flying colours in 2008, and also scored 90 per cent for his Advanced level studies at the Cambridge Arts and Science, Canterbury United Kingdom, as the best graduating student, and the only student to be accepted into Imperial College in London (ICL), from his set.

Born to a Civil Engineer father, and Food Scientist mother, his love for the sciences may have been inherited.

“My best subject, as far back as I can remember, was Mathematics, which is a core requirement for engineering. Also, throughout the years I find that there is a joy in creating things that have never been, and that is what engineers do,” he said.

He credits his parents with a very hands-on approach to raising their children.

“They were very serious about education and so would buy us many books and educational toys. We also had many lesson teachers from a young age. They also ensured we ate healthy and they did their best to ensure we grow up with a good sense of moral judgement and character based on the way they lived their own lives,” Ezeh added.

The kind of upbringing he described may have pushed him to always strive to be the best.

Going on to study Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the ICL between 2010-2014, where he also had a stint in Software Engineering (Trainees) in the London Geo team of Google, he emerged with a First Class. In his first year at the ICL, he was team leader of a group that designed and constructed a track-completing robot using assembly language, while in his fourth year, he built a robot from the scratch to demonstrate a navigation system, and designed a navigation system by simulating optimal control for path following of differential drive for his thesis, which centered on Design and Implementation of Control and Path Planning of Autonomous Vehicle.

Following his achievements at the ICL, Ezeh was awarded a full three year scholarship by University College London, where he is scheduled to round up later this year.

While he is unsure if he would find the appropriate platform to deploy his skills and knowledge in Nigeria, Ezeh plans to return home after his studies to explore opportunities available to scientists like him.

“My plan for the future is to use technology to solve some of the major challenges in Africa. I believe technology can help improve literacy levels, facilitate transparency in government, solve our power crisis and improve the quality of life of people in Africa,” he said.

But like many Nigerians in the sciences making waves abroad, he is likely aware that the opportunities may be limited due to the continued nonchalance to STEM.

“I am surprised we do not have science-based television channels that inspire people into the field. The British and Americans have many of such programmes. We have to face reality: modern civilisation is founded on science and technology. There is no other way to develop a nation. As writer and former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm said, “All we know about the new economic world tells us that nations which train engineers will prevail over those which train lawyers. No nation has ever sued its way to greatness,” Ezeh said in the interview.

“Nations advance when they apply principles gained from the pursuit of organised knowledge, which is essentially the scientific method of thinking. Technology is the fruit of scientific pursuit. I do stress the application because at the end of the day, action counts more than just words. As a nation, we need to become more curious in science and technology in order to catch up with the rest of the world similar to what India has done,” he added.

With papers already published in academic journals, Ezeh is also President of the UCL Robotics Society which he co-founded.

How did he generate interest in Robotics? Ezeh recalled that his secondary school, NTIC, influenced this, and also assisted with developing a rigorous background in mathematics and science. The school, he noted, encouraged willing students to broaden their horizon by participating in local and international competitions.

“I gained an appreciation of science and technology through the international exposure providing by attending these competitions. Furthermore, during my holidays, I would stay back in school for advanced training in Mathematics, Physics and Informatics. It was a lot of fun because we would have a lot of social events when we were not hard at work. We studied hard and play hard,” he recalled.

THISDAY contacted one of his former Mathematics teachers at the NTIC, Mr. Sabri Unal who recalled that Ezeh was also very interested in computers.

“The potential of children should never be underestimated either by their parents or teachers. It is very vital to give them a chance to explore these potential in different areas, which would show what sectors they may be best suited for,” he said.

Unal however emphasised that children should mostly be encouraged in areas where they find joy, happiness and passion, as these would enhance their exploration of such fields.

It is not all academics though. Ezeh is also the Chief Executive Officer of Impactionate Ltd, a company primarily focused on crowd funding for sustainable developmental projects, which can be measured.

“Impactionate is a company borne out of a desire to be the change I want to see,” he said.

The young man also enjoys playing football, ceroc and salsa dancing.

Published on Thisday, 14 March 2017, Tuesday