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This weekend 51 kids from all over India will be representing the country at the World Robot Olympiad. TOI-Crest profiles five teams that made it to the finals after gruelling preliminaries.
Kaival Parikh is a mixture of excitement and nerves. The 12-year-old is just one of the brainiacs in Kuala Lampur this weekend, where 250 teams from 37 countries have gathered for the 9th edition of the World Robot Olympiad (WRO).
"I'm not sure how we'll fare against our international competitors, but we'll do our best to get India as ahead as we can, " Mumbai-based Parekh says.
It's a feeling that Gurgaon's Anees Shaikh shares: "The fact that we are representing India is a feeling that is irreplaceable, and getting a chance to see the best robots from across the world sounds very cool. "
Parekh, Shaikh and 49 other students - spread across 19 teams from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Rajkot, Jaipur, Bangalore and Hyderabad - will be forming the Indian contingent for this year's robot Olympiad for youngsters. They were selected after a national competition, the finale of which was held in Mumbai on September 16.
They may differ in age, hail from different cities and speak different languages, but these kids are all bound by a common fascination for robotics.
Instead of the cold voice of a stranger reading out announcements at a train station, wouldn't it be better if you were greeted by a smiling face who gave you all the information you needed?
"My driver does not speak English or Hindi well. One day, he was telling my mother about getting lost and running around to find information at the railway station, " recalls Mumbai-based Amar More (16). This incident led him and his 17-year-old cousin, Jai Rajgarhia, to build Emoticon, a friendly robot that greets people, complete with facial expressions and in different languages.
The automaton provides train information using pre-established timetables, and guides people to the correct platform and train.
"Assembling mechanical things such as Lego has always been a great hobby for me. I felt like going one step further and making my creations interactive and intelligent, " says sci-fi buff More.
Having a human-like element was crucial to the robot. Emoticon "listens" to the individual addressing it using a sound sensor placed on its nose. It then studies speech pattern (based on volume and speed) to respond to it with an appropriate facial expression, such as anger or curiosity.
The "face" itself is an engineering feat. Emoticon has two motors for the eyebrows, two for each eye, one for the mouth, and three for the neck. The mouth motor doubles up as support as the robot tilts forward and backward.
"There's a control panel to interact with the robot, " the team says. It has buttons to choose a destination out of a list of seven local stations in Mumbai. Emoticon responds to the user's choices in English and Hindi, presenting train timings, platform information, intermediate trains' information, and cost.
Using motors, it indicates the platform your train will arrive at and the number of stops before your destination. It does this pictorially, so as to eliminate any language barriers.
Now at WRO, Rajgarhia is drinking in the moment. "My life is in top gear. I'm hoping to come out of it with the experience of a lifetime. And a medal would be great too. "
Asked to build a 'socially connected robot', the Mumbai trio of Hemani Kalucha, Arvind Ranganathan and Nikeet Dharia turned to a source they knew well for inspiration: the Mahabharata. They were drawn to the legend of a competition in which Arjun shoots a rotating fish.
"It was something that connected us to our culture. I felt that I did not know enough about our history and this robot can help the younger generation like us, " says Kalucha.
And the story itself was important to Dharia. "My grandma used to tell me mythological stories and I wanted to create a digital version of those stories. "
The resultant ARGEN robot is a complex machine comprising two components: the fish and the archer.
The rotating goldfish is controlled by a servo motor, and runs at a random speed in each round.
The "Arjun" archer is the more difficult part of the project. It uses an ultrasonic sensor to locate the fish, and to estimate its speed based on simple time difference. This allows it to also gauge when the fish will be at a particular spot again.
A series of gears, motors and rubber bands are used to complete the complex action of loading an arrow, pulling the bow and shooting the arrow.
Besides, ARGEN has also been programmed to emote. Its head has eyes that move to show concentration when aiming and exhilaration after shooting.
And getting the different parts to work in unison was no easy job.
"We love pizzas. On a day we complete something mechanically difficult, we eat pizza. When we don't complete a task, we wear the same T-shirt for two days till we finish it, " laughs Ranganathan.
In autonomous mode, ARGEN will shoot the fish without human intervention. Of course, in the original story, Arjun couldn't look at the fish;all he had to guide him was its reflection. The robot even recreates this with a remote control mode.
Here, a user stands with his back to ARGEN and the fish. He looks into a mirror, estimates when the fish will reach the target area, and commands the archer to shoot at the exact time.
Asked about their prospects at the WRO, and the team is upbeat. "We're on a hat-trick !" they say. "This is our third year at the WRO. We have worked hard and hope to win a gold medal and the first place trophy this time. "
As India moves ahead, it seems to be forgetting its roots, reckons a team of Chennai-based whizkids. "Imagine how it would be if we could use technology to protect our heritage from becoming extinct?" ask Arock Joe and Anuptaman.
The duo decided to create a robotic version of a popular Tamil folk dance, Poikkal Kudirai, where the dancer wears a dummy horse costume around his waist.
"When people see the robot dancing, they'll start questioning themselves - if a robot can perform our traditional dance, then why can't we? And these art forms will be back again, " avers 9-year-old Anuptaman.
The hero of the Poikkal Kudirai is an Alpha Rex - a tiny humanoid made from the Lego Mindstorms NXT kit. But the graceful movements of the 'dance' come from the vehicle it rests on, which is inspired by the idea of the self-balancing Segway vehicle.
This carrier is made up of two servo motors at the front for the forward and backward movement - and one motor at the back for the rocking movement. The balance is maintained with gyroscopic sensors.
"The model has to be symmetrical and the Alpha Rex has to be attached properly. Even a small mistake may cause big problems, " Joe, 12, explains.
New Delhi-based Anees Shaikh (15), Sreekar Voleti (15) and Prikshit Rao (16) of team Xtreme Robo came up with a smart robotic stick that guides the visually impaired with the help of GPS, alerts others if they fall, and even checks their heart rate.
"We felt the visually impaired are particularly isolated, so we wanted to come up with a way to help them, " Shaikh says.
The trio's invention is equipped with a gyroscope that detects when the person holding it has fallen down. The hilt of the cane also includes a heart rate monitor linked to the user's mobile phone. And CommuniCane can send an SOS message to a predefined guardian in both scenarios.
Besides, the handle features a touch sensor that can serve as a button for emergencies, and be used to lead its user on pre-set GPS paths they have fed into the system.
A compass ensures the user is walking in the right direction. And there's an ultrasonic sensor to warn the user of obstacles in his path.
"We've also fitted CommuniCane with what we like to call 'iSense technology' that actually learns and remembers new places that the user visits, " Rao says.
And what makes the whole contraption userfriendly is that it works on dictation, "speaking" to the user.
Whether they win at WRO or not, this team isn't giving up on their project. "We plan on increasing durability to protect all the sensors, " Rao says.
"We also want to patent our innovation, " Voleti adds. "We have many plans including a Blind Tracking System which gives real-time information about people using the CommuniCane. "
Alarge portion of the Mumbai population lives in slums and the conditions aren't healthy for children, who are forced into labour at an early age. "Some, as young as 5 years old, earn a living by entering and cleaning dirty vintage drains for Rs 200, " says Shreya Rangaraj.
She and her teammate, Kaival Parikh, designed a robot meant to take over from these children.
"Mr Clean is a robot that will work alongside individuals cleaning narrow vertical drains that are almost inaccessible to machines. It estimates the amount of drain clogging and collects the garbage in its disposal system, " say the 12-year-olds, who built a simulation unit to demonstrate its usability.
There are two instruments that Mr Clean uses: a poker and a picker.
The robot uses a Lego weight block and an ultrasonic sensor to determine the difference between the water level and the clogging.
The poker is employed when a smaller drain opens into a larger drain. In such cases, it is easier to poke the objects through for the water to flow freely. A motor fitted in Mr Clean does the job efficiently.
But when the clogged objects cannot be poked through, the picker steps in to collect the garbage and scrunch it into its carriage.
The carriage itself is the foundation of the robot - a bridge-like structure whose trusses hold the robot in place when it has to apply force to poke or pick objects.
It's a project that has sparked a love for robotics in the children, who want to pursue it further since it "can help India progress and stop humans from going into drains and cleaning them".
"I want to take up engineering as a profession when I grow up, " enthuses Parikh. "Robotics can turn thoughts into reality. We can build fascinating and innovative robots that can do almost all of our work. "
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