‘We want to be India’s answer to Honda’s Asimo’

The brains behind India’s first humanoid robot, a group of BITS Pilani alumni, are breaking new ground in robotics, writes Gauri Kohli

education Updated: May 22, 2013 10:44 IST
Gauri Kohli
Gauri Kohli
Hindustan Times

Way back in 2008, Samay Kohli and his classmate Akash Gupta at Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS) Pilani were fascinated after watching Youtube videos of humanoid robots created in Japan. “Everyone told us that this cannot be done in India. That’s how we initially got inspired to do the project,” says Kohli, who built India’s first humanoid robot, AcYut or the ‘one who never falls.’

From their second year at the institution, Kohli and a few other students set up a structured three-stage recruitment process to select the team. “In the first year itself, more than 500 first- and second-year students in Pilani applied for three open slots in team AcYut,” he says.

How they started
Kohli and his group spent more than two years to build AcYut, the name of a series of humanoid robots.

Talking about why this innovation is important and a major impact it has had on society, he says, “We believe that humanoids, swarm intelligence and machine learning have a vital role to play in the coming decade in our society. It is widely believed that after the PC revolution, the next big thing would be robotics.” AcYut has far-reaching applications in numerous areas of research such as human cognition, defence and space exploration. “We have a strong vision to be India’s answer to Honda’s Asimo. Our ultimate aim is to make an autonomous humanoid which is capable of taking decisions and is able to do all the tasks that a human being can,” says Kohli.

AcYut also happens to be India’s only entry to Robogames (formerly Robo-Olympics), the largest open robot challenge in the world. So far, the team has created five robots in the AcYut series.

The team has some great features to incorporate into AcYut including integration of a camera for vision sensing and image recognition, addition of vision module in tele-operation suit that would enable the controller to see whatever the robot sees.

In order to increase the public awareness, the team has conducted various activities to introduce people to the realms of robotics, and illustrate the practical application of robots, especially humanoids, in high-risk environments, outer space, medicine, defence, and everyday life.

There has been tremendous enthusiasm and response to AcYut since the team started working on the project. Invitations have come in from various countries, and places where the team has demonstrated so far are Stanford University, US; Carnegie Mellon University, US; Robo One, Japan; and Kwangwoon University, Seoul, South Korea. Team AcYut has represented India in more than seven countries till date and has also won India’s only gold medal at Robo Olympics 2010 (Robogames) in the US.

Life in an engineering college
Talking about his experience at BITS Pilani, Kohli says, “BITS is among the few institutions that allows students to pursue a dual degree in five years. I wanted to pursue economics in addition to a mechanical engineering degree, which is why I chose BITS. I had joined separate IIT coaching classes for physics, chemistry and mathematics to prepare for the BITS entrance test.

“I chose to study in groups from individual subject experts rather than joining any coaching institutes,” he adds.

Kohli did not find studies ‘rigorous’ and got enough time to pursue his interests. “BITS Pilani has one of the most flexible academic systems that I know of in India.

I took up robotics as a full-time activity with nearly 100% of my free time being devoted to it,” says Kohli.

He was awarded the prestigious BITSAA 30 Under 30 Leadership Award in 2009. This award is given every four years to 30 alumni of BITS Pilani globally, who are under the age of 30 for outstanding contributions to research and society.

Managing funds
“We hardly spent any money from our own pockets but the expenditure on AcYut in the first three years was more than R1.2 crore. Initially, the project was completely sponsored and supported by BITS alumni, both in India and abroad. The fund-raising effort for AcYut 1 and 2 was spearheaded by BITSAA SVC (BITS Silicon Valley Alumni Association). From the third year onwards and even today, AcYut is supported by a research grant from the Department of Information Technology,” says Kohli.

Current areas of work
Today, Kohli and some of his team members have formed a company called Grey Orange Robotics that specialises in the field of intelligent material handling and logistics equipment for the warehousing industry as well as shop floor applications. Currently they are developing the butler robotic material handling system. Butler robots work on swarm intelligence and are programmed to learn from their mistakes and environment. They also work completely independently and collectively take decisions to complete tasks faster. “Right now, these robots in Indian conditions are able to work 40 times faster and upto 48% cheaper than conventional systems already installed,” he adds.

Team: 5 members

Background: Members from mechanical engineering,computer science and electrical engineering

Focus Area: Robotics, swarm intelligence and automation

Outcome/impact: Introduced beginners to the realm of robotics and developed the Butler system, which is helping Indian companies become efficient globally

What next: Plans to develop advance robotics automation systems for helping solve some of the major industrial problems for developing nations

‘His determination to work in robotics was fascinating’

Samay Kohli first met me 2006, after his admission to BITS Pilani in August 2005, to explore the possibility of working in robotics with me. I was fascinated by his clear thoughts and determination to work in robotics. He shared his school projects with me and I decided to take him. He formed a team at the Centre for Robotics and Intelligent Systems (CRIS), which was for research and senior students, to work on different aspects of robotics.

His entry into CRIS led to a spurt in activities and projects. Two quick projects led by Samay were rolled out. One of them was BITSIMO which was one of the most-acclaimed projects from CRIS. With the successes in these projects, we started working on the idea of building a humanoid. As his mentor, I gave him a challenge to build a biped (two legs joined at hips), as one of the most basic as well as most difficult function is to have two- legged walk. He build the biped robot successfully, almost from the scrap without any financial support. There was no stopping thereafter! The journey of humanoids AcYut had began.

Five facts at your fingertips

1. About BITS Pilani Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) Pilani is declared as deemed-to-be university established under Section 3 of UGC Act, 1956. It is privately supported, fully residential and admits both male and female students. It has the main campus in Pilani and additional campuses in Dubai, Goa and Hyderabad

2. Flagship programmes: BITS offers programmes in a three tier structure: integrated first degree programmes — BE (hons) biotechnology, chemical, civil, computer science, electrical and electronics, electronics and communication, electronics and instrumentation, manufacturing, mechanical. BPharm (hons). It offers master’s and doctoral programmes as well

3. Placements Ninety per cent of engineering graduates get campus placements and the average salary for them is Rs. 9 lakh per annum. Three students got jobs in Google with an annual salary package of Rs. 1.22 crore. A number of students also get into foreign universities for further studies or start their own ventures

4. Pilani It is an educational town in Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan and has several schools, and professional colleges besides BITS
It’s known for its temples as well
It is buzzing with activity throughout the year as several students visit Pilani for educational tours

5. Admission to all programmes is on the basis of merit. For integrated first degree courses, admission will be based on the score obtained by the candidates in a computer-based test, BITSAT. BITSAT advertisement appears in December every year and the online tests are conducted during May. Visit http://www.bits-pilani.ac.in/ for details

First Published: May 21, 2013 17:51 IST