Austin Liu, a 16-year-old student at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, led Team USA in winning an international robotics competition recently with a robot called “the plastic pirate.”

The team designed the little water robot to power through Texas ponds, lakes and reservoirs and pick up plastic pollution. Then, like an electronic retriever, the robot heads back to shore with booty that can be either recycled or properly disposed of.

The plastic pirate could lead to an invention that could tackle ocean trash, but as for this iteration, Liu said it’s not seaworthy.

“But there’s a lot of pollution in other bodies of water in Texas,” he said.

The American team, which assembled 16 high schoolers from across the country in a group called the Technicbots, spent about three months over the summer in an Olympics-style contest staged by FIRST Global. The STEM competition tested teams’ ability to innovate, design, engineer and build robots.

FIRST Global is a U.S.-based nonprofit that fosters international STEM development by high school students. The recent competition puts those high schoolers to the test and decides where in the world the most innovative teens are living and working.

Liu has been interested in science and technology since he was a kid. Before enrolling at TAMS, an early college entrance program for high school juniors and seniors housed at the University of North Texas, Liu attended Lebanon Trail High School in Frisco.

“I wanted to come to TAMS because my brother was here,” Liu said. “He’s a 2019 TAMS graduate. It’s funny, because my room here is across the hall from his old room.”

At TAMS, Liu is focused on computer-aided design in a program that emphasizes real-world science and tech solutions for problems and needs in everything from health care to energy consumption.

Liu said his mother, who has spent her career at IBM, discovered FIRST Global and started a team as a coach. The teams take on real-world problems and explore technological solutions. It might sound like a feel-good riff lifted from the running-joke HBO comedy Silicon Valley — hyper-smart tech minds promising to change the world through a smartphone or video platform — but the competition puts each team through three ambitious challenges that really do focus on present-day problems and needs.

Each team had to perform something called a CubeSat prototype challenge, in which teams looked for a local problem to solve, and then used a kit provided by the contest to create a prototype that could give one tangible solution to that local need.

“With the CubeSat challenge, we had to design the prototype, build it and then fly it into the atmosphere in something — I think it was like a weather balloon,” Liu said. “The CubeSat, it’s like a nanosatellite.”

The tiny satellites, which are diminutive boxes measuring 10 cubic centimeters, are often launched on rockets or launched from the International Space Stations, and are often used for observation, weather monitoring and communications.

Each team also took on a robotics challenge, using another kit provided by the contest to complete four tasks: build a powered chassis; build a mechanism that can pick something off the ground and release it; build something that can throw an object, and build something that can lift a weight off the ground.

But the biggest part of the contest, Liu said, was “the solutions challenge.”

“The idea was to design something that could solve a problem in your local community,” Liu said. “Our team designed an aquatic robot that used a camera to find plastic trash in a body of water. When we started, we were going to design something that would find and collect face masks from a body of water. All of us have been working through the pandemic, and we realized that there were all these masks that people didn’t reuse. A lot of them ended up in bodies of water. But as we worked on it, we decided that it should be able to pick up plastic in general.”

Team USA formed an alliance with Team Zimbabwe, in a process the contest allows and encourages, and the African team developed a design for a plastic-hunting robot that would work on land. Team USA developed the water rover, and the teams shared ideas and information.

Liu said the prototype called for a small robot that made use of small pontoon floats, a conveyer belt to draw plastic out of the water, and a compartment to store the trash. Liu said the robot would use open-source programming to operate, and could both be piloted from an operator on a boat or land, or work autonomously.

“You could build your own robot from the design for under $50, probably,” Liu said.

COVID-19 made FIRST Global a virtual competition this year. In 2019, the competition took place in Dubai. Liu said the Zimbabwe and US teams had to coordinate to gather virtually, and the alliance meetings gave the US team a glimpse into their peers’ lives.

“It was interesting to be able to see their houses,” Liu said. “Not every team has the same resources, and the alliance helped us see the differences in how other teams did their projects.”

It took 12 weeks for the teams to complete the solutions challenge. Team USA and Team Zimbabwe took the grand prize of the tournament, the FIRST Global Discover & Recover Award. The team also won a gold medal for the FIRST Global Grand Challenge Award in the environment category. Finally, Team USA won the silver medal for the FIRST Global Challenge Award for Phase 1 in the environment category.

“This was really, really unexpected,” Liu said. “Traditionally, Team USA is the team that wins the world championship, but we didn’t go into FIRST Global thinking we would get the grand prize.”

Liu will wrap up his studies at TAMS next year, and said he’s thinking about following his older brother once more, this time to the University of California, Berkeley. Liu said he’ll probably continue studying STEM, but isn’t sure what he’ll choose as a major.

“I think computer science sounds too confining for me,” he said. “I do like to get out in the outdoors, so I might do something more adventurous. I’ve been into entrepreneurship. I’ve done some entrepreneurship camps, so that’s something I might do.”

But he’s not ready to drop computer science all together. Not just yet. If he could develop something, Liu said, it would be practical and relevant.

“I’m interested in AI, in doing something with it that helps people at TAMS stay focused,” Liu said. “I don’t know exactly what it would be, but I’d like to use AI to move away from being so dependent on our phones.”

LUCINDA BREEDING-GONZALES can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.

Recommended for you

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!