It's a hot June afternoon. Eight scientists frantically take readings on their satellite payload. Anxiety levels are running high as team members check and recheck the descent mechanism and ground control system. The countdown has already begun.
No, this is not the scene of a satellite launch by the Indian Space Research Organisation. The scientists are students of the International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad, or IIIT-H. They are working on a trial launch of ‘Mission Gaganyaan,’ which in 2009 became the first and only Indian entry to CanSat, a prestigious competition that allows student teams to design, build and launch a miniature satellite.
The IIIT-H satellite eventually took off from Amarillo, Texas, US, on June 13. The launch and landing were smooth. But something went wrong with the satellite's communication system, and IIIT-H had to be content with the eighth position among 25 teams in the competition, sponsored by the US space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA.
Team member Sudhir Gupta acknowledges IIIT-H's role in the achievement. “It is the freedom and flexibility to opt for coursework and inter-disciplinary research right from undergraduate level that has helped us form a strong team from different engineering streams to participate in such an exciting international programme,” he said.
IIIT-H started in 1998 as an autonomous, self-supporting institute with initial backing from the Andhra Pradesh government. The institute aims to “combine the highest quality education with pioneering research that can make a significant difference to industry and society,” according to its website.
IIIT-H's curriculum offers students the flexibility to select courses and undertake projects. The curriculum consists of a diverse set of courses in information technology (IT), interdisciplinary IT research projects, day-to-day interaction with industry and even personality development courses. “Every course has project works, and the first three semesters of our undergraduate programme have courses like computer and electronics workshops,” said P.J. Narayanan, dean (research and development) at IIIT-H.
“Here, students build software packages or small robots even before they learn about software or electronics. This gives the students the thrill of having built something. When they learn the theory later, they will have (a) better understanding,” Narayanan explained.
But what makes the faculty and students take up such projects? “Empowerment of faculty and research centre heads with freedom to evolve innovative coursework and encourage innovative interdisciplinary research are some key factors that make IIIT-H attract not only talented faculty from across the globe, but also bright students from across the country,” said Amit Jain, head of the Power Systems Research Center at IIIT-H.
The research focus of the institute is not confined just to the labs. The institute encourages research from the prototype to a commercially viable scale in several areas in collaboration with industry, according to Jain. “Several leading industry players are attracted by the kind of research that is being taken up at our institute.”
The research centre, for instance, tied up with leading companies that include ABB, the world's largest builder of electric grids, US conglomerate General Electric Co., Indian electric equipment maker Crompton Greaves Ltd, and the Electrical Research and Development Association.
Top company executives are also attracted by the innovative and interdisciplinary research activities at the institute and several of them have joined to pursue research at IIIT-H. The institute has also attracted some experienced faculty from leading technical institutes and engineering colleges to take up research.
Surrounded by many academic and research institutes such as the Hyderabad Central University, Indian School of Business and Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Development Banking, IIIT-H is spread over 66 acres on the outskirts of Hyderabad.
It is the only technical institute in the country under a not-for-profit public-private partnership between the Andhra Pradesh government, India's main software industry lobby, the National Association of Software and Services Companies, or Nasscom, and some Indian IT companies.
IIIT-H has designed a curriculum with a focus on research right from the undergraduate level, which the dean calls the institute's unique selling proposition. “Even our bachelor's programme has a slightly different structure from comparable bachelor's programmes in the country at IITs,” said Narayanan. “The goal is that even if one student wants to do research, he or she should be enabled to do it.”
Though the institute offers conventional bachelor of technology (BTech) programmes as well, it ensures that interested students can join research-oriented programmes after completing the first half of their four-year course. For the last two years of the course, they will be working with a professor or a group on projects and emerge with expertise in areas such as databases, computer vision, language processing, digital and wireless communication and algorithms.
Nearly one-third of the undergraduates prefer to do research, Narayanan says.