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Rahat Bano, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, November 06, 2012
In quiet corners of some of India’s best engineering institutes, researchers are developing solutions for every day and for some of the most pressing issues facing the country. Their creations range from a skybus and a motorised arm to urinal traps and white clay disposable cups. We take a look at some of the work being done by the best brains in the country in the top institutes. 
 
Accessible healthcare
Cataract is a leading cause of blindness in India, accounting for around half of all cases of reversible blindness. Recently, IIT Madras came up with a solution for cataract-related blindness in rural India where accessibility and limited infrastructure facilities remain a challenge. The institute, with Chennai-based Sankara Nethralaya as medical partner, has developed the first-of-its-kind Mobile Eye Surgical Unit (MESU) that can travel to rural areas and perform cataract surgeries on-site.

The MESU consists of two vehicles — a preparatory vehicle that houses a patient prep room, and a changing room, and a surgical vehicle that has an operation theatre, sterilisation room and a scrub room (a special washing area for medical personnel). The IIT Madras team, with critical inputs from a Sankara Nethralaya ophthalmologist, designed a  twin vehicle architecture to ensure that the MESU could travel through narrow roads and access remote places. “An innovative vestibule (a tubular structure) design connects the two vehicles together on-site to provide a contiguous patient preparation and operation theatre similar to a modern surgical facility,” as per official information.

“The self-sufficient MESU has on board systems for providing uninterrupted electrical power, sterile air, pure water and a stable mechanical platform,” says Mohanasankar S, faculty, department of electrical engineering, IIT Madras.

The pilot phase of the department of biotechnology-funded project was given permission by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. In the pilot stage, from December 2011 to March 2012, 486 surgeries were performed in rural areas of Vellore district “without any postoperative complications,” says Mohanasankar S. “Following its success, the ministry has given long-term approval for surgeries in the mobile unit.”

RoVer for IEDs
A team from IIT Bombay recently developed a remotely operated vehicle for handling Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). As per official information, the RoVer has a manipulator arm which can handle and dispose of IEDs or any suspicious looking item. The size of a dining table (five feet long, 2.5 feet wide and 4.5 feet tall), the robotic vehicle can raise to a height of three metres objects weighing up to 20kg at a distance of about three metres ahead of it. It can inspect below culverts while positioned on the surface, explains C Amarnath, professor, department of mechanical engineering, IIT Bombay, who led the team which developed it. It is “capable of negotiating all terrains including built-up areas with stairs and obstacles;” has a maximum speed of 2km per hour and is controlled remotely with the help of four on-board cameras.

“It can pick up a suspected explosive (like an unattended bag at a public place) and take it to a safe place for disposal,” says Amarnath.
The project was sponsored by the Army Technology Board and the College of Military Engineering (CME), Pune, and Hyderabad-based CIM Technologies did the engineering work.

The team took about five and a half years to create the “cost-effective rugged robot” which was delivered to its sponsors in 2010-2011. The RoVer has been deployed at CME, Pune, informs Amarnath.

It is different from another Indian-made robot, Defence Research and Development Organisation’s Daksh. The latter, for example, is a wheeled robot whereas the former has tracks (the chains which move, for instance, a tank) to allow it to travel over uneven (including stairs etc), rugged terrain, says Amarnath. “Both variants are efficient and each has its own special capabilities permitting users a choice, a choice needed to handle varied scenarios efficiently.”
 
Ecological sanitation
IIT Delhi’s Centre for Rural Development and Technology dealt with an issue which is as much about hygiene and human dignity as it is about country’s progress in several ways. A multidisciplinary team led by Prof Vijayaraghavan M Cheriar focusing on ecological sanitation solutions has developed a waterless, odourless urinal.

There is a widespread lack of toilets in the country, especially in schools. Earlier this year it was reported that, as per census 2011 data, almost half (49.8%) of Indians relieve themselves in the open. Last month, the Supreme Court asked the government to ensure toilet facilities in all schools within six months.

The team’s innovation, a urinal odour trap, has been used in different parts of the country. “We have installed men’s waterless urinals - more than 200 pieces in Bangalore, Orissa, IIT Delhi campus - which are the cheapest in the market right now and are easy to retrofit existing urinals,” says Ramesh Sakthivel, a researcher from the team.

The product has been commercialised through two Indian companies. A standalone odour trap could cost as low as Rs. 200 and one fixed into a urinal, Rs. 1600, whereas a leading manufacturer sells a sealant liquid-based odour trap for more than Rs. 6000, says Sakthivel. The cost can be kept low if existing urinals are retrofitted with the IIT-developed trap.

Now the institute is working to make one for women as well which can be used in girls’ schools.

The team is focusing on ecological sanitation efforts which aim to recover from human urine nutrients such as phosphates (main component of fertilisers) which India currently imports.  According to Sakthivel, a product like the waterless urinal helps reduce water contamination, conserve 10 litres of water per use, recover fractions of useful nutrients, decentralise the sanitation system and is easy to maintain. 

Sakthivel says that in the light of the Supreme Court order, the team has also developed a cost-effective urinal trough which can be installed in boys’ schools. “In our pilot in Tamil Nadu, we found that it saves the cost of constructing toilet blocks. Large schools can save construction costs by using these.”