By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Like many Niskayuna residents who spend their professional lives at places like KAPL and General Electric, Andrei Akhmetov works on research and development, collaborating with professionals in his field to push the limits of already cutting-edge technology.
Unlike most, he’s a junior in high school.
Akhmetov, who lives in the Hexam Gardens neighborhood with his parents, is the director of research and development for Niskayuna High School’s Robotics Club. His peers selected him for the position, and he takes his responsibilities seriously, constantly searching for ways to use the group’s 3-D printer more efficiently or solve problems with their competitive robots.
“He’s made so much possible for our robotics club,” said Carl DeCesare, an engineering technology teacher and the club’s adviser. “Without him, we’d really be kind of stuck.”
Akhmetov has a reputation around the engineering department as a problem solver. To him, the manual for a software program or a piece of hardware is just a starting point in his quest to make everything simpler and more efficient.
“It’s about designing something that has a purpose and has aesthetic value,” he said. “I try to pick up on patterns in the way the program is designed.”
During robotics club, that focus is directed at improving the team’s competition robot, which they’ve programmed to follow directions from a controller. It can move around an arena, pick up a ball and dump it into a small storage compartment.
While the group was preparing for a competition a few months ago at Albany Academy, they realized that during practice rounds, important motors on the wheels would break easily if they knocked against a solid surface.
The parts were delicate and cost a lot to replace, so Akhmetov came up with a plastic cover that would protect them without altering the robot’s function. He designed them and printed them on the group’s 3-D printer, which they fired up for the first time in November of last year. The team won a design award at that particular competition.
The 3-D printer is another area in which Akhmetov constantly innovates. When it breaks, he’s the one the group looks to for repairs. But he’s not satisfied to just keep the thing functioning: He hopes to upgrade it so that in the future the group can use the same machine with different attachments as a laser cutter or CNC machine.
It doesn’t matter if it hasn’t been done before. Akhmetov has a network of professional programmers that he’s met through sites like LinkedIn who help him when he’s stumped.
While he hasn’t quite figured out how to use attachments yet, he has come up with a way to turn the 3-D printer into a source of income for the club by charging students in other classes to use it.
For Akhmetov, looking toward the future includes worrying about what the other members of his club will do after he graduates, so he’s proposed a solution: a class about the kind of trial-and-error programming he enjoys.
“I’ve been pushing to get more programmers on the team,” he said. Many who were interested, though, gave up or got frustrated when they hit snags. In response, he will design a course and test it after school in the near future. If it goes well, it could become an official course offering at the high school.
DeCesare said of all the efforts Akhmetov has made, designing a way to pass on his knowledge is most inspiring. “That, to me, says a lot,” he said. “To me that shows an investment in the program.”
In the future, Akhmetov hopes to study at a prestigious technical school such as MIT, CalTech, Stanford or RPI. After that, he wants continue solving problems, likely in the field of autonomics.
Autonomics is a branch of robotics where machines complete tasks in complex ways, like cars that parallel park themselves or anti-lock brakes that protect drivers when they hit black ice.
“I’m trying to make the leap between manual and smart automation,” Akhmetov said.
Outside of his robotics work, he is also co-president of the Computer Science club at Niskayuna High School and participates in Science Olympiad.
In his spare time, he blogs about combining various programming languages in more efficient ways. He also works on open source coding projects, which means he solves problems with free software as part of a collaborative online community.
“He’s always wanting to share that knowledge and expertise,” DeCesare said.