Students in India are making robots that will serve society

Service robot built by students from Thapar Polytechnic.

  • While robotics is finally taking off in Indian schools and colleges, scaling up is still an issue
  • Considering that young school students are taking active interest in robotics, it is important for the industry to get closely involved

What if a fire breaks out in a house with no one at home to douse it? In such cases, students from Yadavindra Public School in Patiala believe their fire-fighting robot can control it, stop the fire from spreading, and even extinguish it completely in some cases. The robot will use small cannons with water or decomposing compounds to control the fire until the fire brigade arrives.

To ensure the robot can detect fire sooner, the students intend to place the sensors in the middle of the side walls and not on the ceiling. “Once the sensors send a signal to the robot it reaches the exact location immediately. We have thought of using GPS (global positioning system) to send the robot the location,” says Poorva Puri, a team member of this robotics class.

The fire-fighting robot was just one of the numerous prototypes displayed at the fifth International Robotics League and World Robotics Championship—Technoxian, organized by the All India Council for Robotics and Automation (AICRA) in New Delhi earlier this week. Over 28,000 students in the age group of 13-30 years, from various schools and colleges from India and other countries, attended Technoxian this year.

Most of the prototypes presented at the Delhi event were built using components that students had acquired from their school labs, workshops and online stores. Some were even 3D-printed by the students. For instance, students from Thapar Polytechnic in Patiala built a service robot that can move, talk, recognize faces and has limbs with mechanical fingers to lift objects. “The cost of bulking the prototype was up to 25,000. Sourcing the components was never a problem as our college helped us. We designed the parts that were not available ourselves, and got them 3D printed,” said Shivam, one of the students involved with the development of the prototype.

In addition to providing space for the students, Technoxian has got several competitions, such as Robo Soccer, Robo Race and Fastest Line Follower, lined up for students and teams to use their prototypes and compete with each other. The winners could bag prize money of up to 5 lakh in several categories. Technoxian’s organizer, AICRA, is also launching incubators and setting up labs in schools and colleges to identify and help students commercialize these prototypes. They have already set up labs in 20 schools.

“Events like these are very important as they show the level of enthusiasm among children. Whether these prototypes will be applicable for use is difficult to say, until and unless there is a scope for commercialization or scaling them up,” said Tabassum Jamal, chief scientist, National Institute of Science Technology and Development Studies.

Jamal added that lack of awareness is a major issue as many students with wonderful ideas don’t know where to go. However, schools and educationists are now getting updated. She said countries like China, Japan and South Korea “were high up in the innovation ladder because they involved the industry and entrepreneurs right from the beginning of the concept”. “We need to do that as well,” she urged. Raj Kumar Sharma, president, AICRA, acknowledged that robotics in India is still in its infancy. “By partnering with the industry and educationists, we can develop more such products and make students ready for career in the field and that will help the overall industry grow as well.”

To be sure, the field of robotics has been generating a lot of interest in India. The fact that sourcing the components to build a prototype for robotics is no longer a challenge, is also encouraging more students to experiment with robotics. The most prominent robotics event is e-Yantra—a pan-India event organized by IIT Bombay, wherein participating students are presented with robots built by the premier institution and then asked to develop solutions to carry out specific tasks using them.

Considering that young school students are taking active interest in robotics and building problem-solving prototypes to fight air pollution, reduce power wastage, save water or even control fire, it is important for the industry to get closely involved.

On its part, the government has been supporting such efforts at the school level. NITI Ayog-backed incubator, Atal Tinkering Lab (ATL), is one such programme that provides play workspaces for students of classes 6-12 to encourage them to solve problems using science and technology. These labs are equipped with 3D printers, sensor technology kits, miniaturized electronics and robotics. So far, 1,500 schools across India have benefited from ATLs.