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Sunday, November 29, 2015

EYantra Project (IIT-Bombay)
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EYantra Project (IIT-Bombay)  
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Tuesday, June 19, 2012 Market pundits aver that the Indian economy has grown to $1T in 60 years since independence. In 6 years we're going to grow to $2T and then exponentially at a similar rate to that of China - only 10 years behind. This growth will prove a drastic challenge to our youngsters like never before. How do we meet the demands of a rapidly modernising economy with its 1.2B people with challenges such as limited trained manpower and limited automation in our industries? This is going to cause demographic upheavals like never before - urban families already find domestic help is difficult to find. The rural NREGA scheme has rendered labour scarce like never before. These are the tip of the iceberg that indicate a severe need for automation in the economy. But who is going build these machines for us - and at what cost? Imported technology costs us between 8-10 times as much as locally produced technology so it is clear that we need to find these resources within ourselves by preparing our youngsters for these challenges.

The progress of our nation lies in being able to produce high quality engineers who have the education and adequate exposure to technology at a young age to think innovatively and develop indigenous appropriate technology. Project E-Yantra at IIT Bombay is an initiative in Embedded Systems sponsored under the NMEICT program (National Mission for ICT in Education) by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. E-Yantra has been conceptualized by Prof Kavi Arya and Prof. Krithi Ramamritham of the CSE Dept. at IIT Bombay as a way to transfer their experience in building embedded systems as a fun exercise for engineering students all over the country.

The modus operandi is to provide hands-on learning-infrastructure to engineering students with limited access to labs and mentors. The goal is to create a practical outlook in students to help them articulate problems that they see around them and to solve them using a little robot developed by the IIT-Bombay team over the last 5 years at IIT Bombay. This project is an outcome of years of the experience of these professors teaching Embedded Systems course to students both at IIT-Bombay and at remote engineering colleges through the Distance Education Program of IIT-Bombay.

Opines Prof. Arya, "It is only when students articulate a problem and then solve it themselves, using a little machine with flashing lights and things that move, that they acquire confidence as embedded systems engineers." After all, the important part of this exercise is to instill a "can do" attitude in the students as a first step to achieving anything in life. The next step being to prototype a solution by solving the problem in the small - this being the classical way engineers usually work. Once the idea is understood in the small we can scale up to a larger more realistic solution.

In the Embedded Systems course projects which are completed in 6-8 weeks we see working examples of "Jhadu pocha" robots, fruit picking robots, autonomous vehicle robots, "servant bot," factory automation robot, pothole filling robot, and so on. Each solves a relevant problem picked up from around us and solved in the small. From here the transition to a "real" machine is not as large as it might have been otherwise. This experience is now being taken to the next level through a National Robotics Competition where students from all over India will participate in theme-wise solving of such problems. This climaxes in a final competition at Techfest in IIT Bombay in Jan. 2013. Interested participants are advised to register at http://www.e-yantra.org/register to participate in the competition as teams. There is a selection process following which 120 teams (4 strong) will be selected to participate in the competition and put through the necessary training to take part in what promises to be an exciting formative experience.

A large amount of foreign exchange is used to purchase software. If we were to use legal copies, which most businesses have to nowadays, the costs nationally would run into billions of dollars - a cost scarce affordable to our important Small Scale Sector. An important observation made by faculty is that all aspects of their work in E-Yantra uses Open Source software. Even the design of the robots is open source. Prof. Arya mentioned how whenever he used to visit colleges he found evidence of half-finished robotic projects where, because students could not buy "standard robots" they spent their energy on building the platform rather than solving an interesting problem. "Every year this happens" with the result that there is never any progress. "Our robots being a commodity may be purchased off the shelf or built according to our design." Then there are over a hundred open source projects on our website which students can build upon to create even more sophisticated projects. "We must be one of the few faculty to encourage copying or reuse" Prof. Arya chuckles. All the material developed in this project is Open Source material licensed under a Creative Commons License. Permission is granted for download/ use/ modification/ distribution of this material, for non-commercial purposes. The experiments are released under the Creative Commons - Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.5 India license.

If the enthusiasm of Craig Mundy, the Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft, is anything to go by when he visited Prof. Arya's lab at IIT Bombay - robotics is here to stay and just as we program PCs today we will be programming robots tomorrow. There will certainly be a lot of work in making machines do our bidding in a variety of sectors. Perhaps that's why he commissioned IITB to port their open source Firebird robot into their Microsoft Robotics Studio, Microsoft's proprietary robotic application development platform. Clearly robotics is here to stay. For those who feel threatened we have this to say - there are a whole lot of dangerous, monotonous and painful jobs out there in the world which are best done by machines. Other than this it is also believed that due to the drastically lowering costs brought on by robotic manufacturing technology and the increasing cost of transportation, a lot of manufacturing sector jobs are going to migrate back to the Developed countries. So it is not a question of whether we can afford to get into robotics but whether we can afford to keep out of this most important race in the future. We need to protect the future of our youngsters in this fast changing world - like never before. Don't you agree?

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