Young inventors from NUS are the next generation of problem-solvers

The brief is “to design something that solves a problem”.

Three NUS teams have accomplished just that, with one team surging ahead as this year’s national winner of the 2021 Singapore James Dyson Award.

The James Dyson Award is an international design competition created to encourage young, aspiring engineers to apply their knowledge, discover new ways to improve lives through technology and change the world. All three teams will go on to represent Singapore in an international arena, where Sir James Dyson will eventually select an overall winner.

National winner: A wearable device for pain-free glaucoma testing

In Singapore, approximately three per cent of people over the age of 50 have glaucoma.  To date there is no cure, but blindness can be prevented if diagnosed and treated early enough.

The problem arises when we consider glaucoma’s insidious nature as being largely symptom-free, with more than 80 per cent of people with the condition unaware of it at the time of diagnosis.

The winning team designed a wearable biomedical device for pain-free, low cost, and regular intraocular pressure (IOP) monitoring. Aptly named HOPES (Home Eye Pressure E-skin Sensor), the winning design uses patent pending sensor technology and artificial intelligence (AI) to offer a fuss-free method for users to self-monitor IOP from the comfort of their homes.

The team members behind HOPES are Yu Kelu and Li Si, who are both doctoral students from NUS Materials Science and Engineering, as well as David Lee, a Research Assistant at NUS Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Ms Yu, co-inventor of HOPES, shared how her father’s own diagnosis with glaucoma catalysed the inspiration for this project. There was a clear demand for an easy to use and reliable solution that could empower patients to get ahead of their condition.

“My father was diagnosed with glaucoma in 2019 and suffered from constant eye pain and headache. This personal experience motivated me to delve deeper into the disease and treatments,” she shared.

The device consists of a pair of gloves with sensors in the fingertips, and is linked to an app. When gently placed on the centre of an eyelid, the gloved fingertip employs a unique sensor architecture that can capture dynamic pressure information of the user's eye with sub-millisecond precision. The captured signals are processed by machine learning algorithms to continuously compute users’ IOP, with a higher degree of accuracy than currently available tests.

All data is conveniently captured and stored in the app, which can then be digitally shared with clinicians who can offer remote medical help and supervision – a significant benefit especially in COVID-19 times.

The NUS team is presently collaborating with clinicians at the National University Hospital to collect and analyse patients’ eye pressure data to train the device’s machine learning mode. At the same time, they are working on optimising HOPES’ performance, and improving its design for further clinical trials and pilot tests before bringing the device to market.

Runner-up: A novel system to facilitate electric vehicle charging

Despite the Singapore government offering a slew of incentives to encourage a switch to electric vehicles (EVs), gasoline-powered cars remain the more popular choice amongst local drivers.

Through researching the phenomenon, three key limiting factors surfaced: the limited availability of EV chargers, a burdening of the power grid and the general inconvenience of charging EVs.

A team of four undergraduates comprising Teoh Yi Zheng from NUS Computer Engineering, Lam Jing Siang and Roydan Yow who are both from NUS Mechanical Engineering, as well as Isaac Lim from the Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) School of Computer Science were motivated to create a solution to address the aforementioned problems.

Their invention, CurrentPlex, is an EV charging system that comprises two components. First, the power supply is connected to multiple cars’ charging plugs via a multiplexer. This allows the power to be directed to any plug at a given time, enabling multiple EVs to be charged one after the other without moving the car. The second component is an automated charging connector housed within a parking curb. When a car is parked, an infrared dot projector and sensor which are nested in the curb identifies the position of the charging port on the car, and automatically attaches the charging connector to it.

CurrentPlex is more cost and space effective than conventional car charging systems, and can be easily installed and integrated into the wheel stops of existing car parking lots.

Runner-up: A locally optimised toilet for all

While working in slums, peri-urban and rural communities in India, a group of NUS students discovered a huge sanitation gap. The problem was a complex one, involving inter-related issues of public health, infrastructure and waste management.

Boasting of varied backgrounds themselves, these three young innovators put their heads together to design an inter-disciplinary solution. The team comprised Masters student Kiruthika A. Palanisami from NUS Environmental Engineering, as well as Eingeel Khan and Ankit Sati, who graduated with a Masters in Landscape Architecture and a Master of Arts in Urban Design from the NUS School of Design and Environment, respectively.

Specifically, they developed a product based on their first-hand understanding of the user’s pain points, existing inadequate centralised facilities, and lack of financial resources for the Base of the Pyramid (BoP) community.

LOTA+, which stands for Locally Optimised Toilet for All, is a sustainable sanitation solution that leverages upcycled waste for constructing toilets, while reducing the use of freshwater, and features the recycling of black-grey water for groundwater recharge. The self-assembly of the system provides a sense of attachment to the people, encouraging good maintenance by the local community. The entire system is off-grid and self-sufficient, reducing dependency on centralised infrastructure.