Sunday, 9 October 2011

Child's play: GenX robots from GenY

Imagine a robot that can help guide the visually-impaired climbing stairs and play air hockey, or those that can sort or trash objects. It’s no more rocket science, but the handiwork of school-going kids aged seven to 19 years.
Robotics is a field of engineering that deals with design and application of robots and the use of computer for manipulating and processing them. As a subject, it is slowly coming out of high-end research & development units of government agencies and large enterprises to classrooms and technical institutes in India.

There’s no arguing that robotics is still in its nascent stage in India, but for most young achievers, applying the laws of physics, engineering and computer science in solving the problem and assembling the robot is becoming the fun way of learning.
Take the case of 13-year-old creators of X-sight – a robotic air hockey game for the visually impaired – Arvind Ranganathan & Nikeet Dharia from Ecole Mondial World School and Hemani Kalucha from Dhirubhai Ambani School.
“We initially had thought of creating something for people suffering from Dyslexia (reading disorder) but then realised that they are being taken cared of. But we realised that people who cannot see have few recreational avenues. And hence decided to work on this project,” says Ranganathan.
The teenagers divided an air hockey board into 12 zones and installed the striker with colour sensors. The player wears a glove on their left hand that acts as a sensor and sends information via Bluetooth to the plotter or tracker. Each colour has a value ascribed to it and the tracker vibrates every time the striker reads this value. The hockey board has a robotic arm attached to the other side, which helps in playing defence, as it can stop the puck by sensing the movement.
“At present the systems has a lag of two seconds. Over the next two months we plan to work on this and make it as real-time as possible by the time we compete at the World Robot Olympiad,” says Ranganathan.
Ranganathan’s team was one of the participants at the Sixth Indian Robot Olympiad, 2011 presented by Techtronics Education. The event had participation from 600 schools across India. The theme for this year’s IRO was “Robots for Life Improvement”.
Come October 14, kids from north India who did not get a chance at the IRO can prove themselves at another platform — the Interschool Robotics Challenge (IRC) organised by the learning systems company, Building Blocks. Pegged to be the biggest remote-controlled robotics competition, IRC will be hosted at Shri Ram School in Gurgaon and is expected to have around 400 participants. More than 50 robots from five North Indian states will compete with their self-made, remote-controlled robots that can run obstacles races to pattern matching.
“The idea behind such platforms is to get students familiar with robotics as part of the curriculum. This also promotes activity-based education and prepares students to compete in a healthy environment. At the WRO, the Indian students will compete with nearly 4,000 schools from across the globe,” says Apurva Kalia, technical advisor to Techtronics Education.
Kalia says the IRO has come a long way since it was launched six years ago with just one city and a handful schools. Today participants from four cities line up at the event.
The enthusiasm is catching on with the students. This year, Dhaneesh Parwani of Poddar School, Mathai Abraham of Bombay Scottish and Shrey Turahkiya of Jamnabhai Narsee School topped the Junior high category at the IRO from Mumbai. They built a robot that guides an elderly person. “The task was to create a Bot that can help or assist a visually impaired person to climb the stairs. The surprise element in this task was to manoeuvre a can kept in the middle of the path. We had to then programme the robot accordingly,” says Turakhiya, 13.
At the IRC, the goal was to identify talents and challenge the robotics minds further. The event organisers have even introduced events like Robo-Quiz and Robo-Design.
A robot designing competition, First Lego League Tournament, held at tech-major SAP Labs earlier this year saw active participation by students from Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delhi. The teams were given special kits by SAP Labs that contained Lego bricks, programmable processors, sensors and motors to build robots that would accomplish predefined missions. Acceptance and success of robotics-based learning in India can be measured by the increase in the number of school teams participating in the events. Six years ago the first IRO had just 35 teams from five schools. This year there are 600 schools from across the nation.
“If I look back to the first IRO, I can also confidently say that the quality and interest level of students have increased many fold. The teams that went for the WRO for the first year stood no where in the competition, to last year when we had a team from India in the top three winner,” says Kalia. Techtronics Education, which works with over 200 schools, is expecting the numbers to go up to 1,000 within the next three years.

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