Proving their metal: Meet India’s newest robots

Updated on Aug 06, 2022 05:57 PM IST
A robotic arm that paints wood, a bot that helps the physically challenged walk again, a sneaky little spy that looks like a pair of binoculars — the newest robots wheeling about in the country are cutting-edge. The next frontiers: improved communication skills, homegrown hardware.
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(Images: Shutterstock)
ByNatasha Rego

They’re Iron Man-style exoskeletons, sneaky little spies, even wheelie things that help fliers make their way around an airport.

As robots come of age, they’re not what science-fiction promised (no Rosie to cook up a magic meal; no cops or indestructible soldiers). Instead, in Noida, there’s a robotic arm that paints wood. It might also soon be able to open a door with a key, and mix a cocktail (making it, potentially, not the worst kind of date).

In Delhi, Mumbai, Nagpur and Ahmedabad, Sencibel and Augsy are helping in hospitals and on factory floors. GenElek’s Sencibel bots are helping the physically challenged walk again. Augsy, also by GenElek, is worn over the upper body and can help the user lift heavier weights with greater ease.

In Pune, Combat Robotics’s Arista attended a recent Indian Army event, where it showcased its ability to make its way (potentially through enemy territory), carrying sensors that could record data, or ferrying a small explosive.

At airports in Coimbatore and Bengaluru, helpful Temi robots by Mumbai-based Artiligent can help fliers find a specific kind of coffee, cake, or boarding gate.

India still has a low penetration of robots. According to the International Federation of Robotics, a non-profit organisation based in Germany, India has an estimated 3,200 robots deployed in industry in 2020. China tops that chart, with almost 170,000 robots, followed by Japan, the US, South Korea and Germany, with over 20,000 robots each.

Hardware remains a significant challenge. “Hardware investors in India are a dying breed,” says Alysha Maria Lobo, global marketing head at the Tokyo-based Rapyuta Robotics and a deep-tech investor. “The hardware space is seen, widely, as one that is fraught with risk, long production timelines, rapidly evolving technology and high maintenance costs.”

What Indian start-ups are doing well is designing functions and developing software, she adds, as well as making such machines more affordable and therefore more accessible. In an example of this kind of innovation, Shalu, developed by Kendriya Vidyalaya computer science teacher Dinesh Kunwar Patel, was programmed to speak 47 languages.

They’re Iron Man-style exoskeletons, sneaky little spies, even wheelie things that help fliers make their way around an airport.

As robots come of age, they’re not what science-fiction promised (no Rosie to cook up a magic meal; no cops or indestructible soldiers). Instead, in Noida, there’s a robotic arm that paints wood. It might also soon be able to open a door with a key, and mix a cocktail (making it, potentially, not the worst kind of date).

In Delhi, Mumbai, Nagpur and Ahmedabad, Sencibel and Augsy are helping in hospitals and on factory floors. GenElek’s Sencibel bots are helping the physically challenged walk again. Augsy, also by GenElek, is worn over the upper body and can help the user lift heavier weights with greater ease.

In Pune, Combat Robotics’s Arista attended a recent Indian Army event, where it showcased its ability to make its way (potentially through enemy territory), carrying sensors that could record data, or ferrying a small explosive.

At airports in Coimbatore and Bengaluru, helpful Temi robots by Mumbai-based Artiligent can help fliers find a specific kind of coffee, cake, or boarding gate.

India still has a low penetration of robots. According to the International Federation of Robotics, a non-profit organisation based in Germany, India has an estimated 3,200 robots deployed in industry in 2020. China tops that chart, with almost 170,000 robots, followed by Japan, the US, South Korea and Germany, with over 20,000 robots each.

Hardware remains a significant challenge. “Hardware investors in India are a dying breed,” says Alysha Maria Lobo, global marketing head at the Tokyo-based Rapyuta Robotics and a deep-tech investor. “The hardware space is seen, widely, as one that is fraught with risk, long production timelines, rapidly evolving technology and high maintenance costs.”

What Indian start-ups are doing well is designing functions and developing software, she adds, as well as making such machines more affordable and therefore more accessible. In an example of this kind of innovation, Shalu, developed by Kendriya Vidyalaya computer science teacher Dinesh Kunwar Patel, was programmed to speak 47 languages.

In the arena of robots built from scratch, the government of India continues to make progress. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) announced the use of Vyom Mitra, a humanoid sea-faring robot, to be used in the test run before Gaganyaan, India’s first manned space mission. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is developing Daksh, a remotely operated robot whose primary objective is bomb recovery.

In the private and academic sectors, experiments tend to be focused on robots that can facilitate difficult tasks. At IIT-Madras, researchers are testing HomoSEP, a manual scavenging robot meant to finally eliminate the use of humans in this fatally unsanitary profession. That is precisely the kind of bot that India needs, says SK Saha, a professor of mechanical engineering at IIT-Delhi who specialises in robotics. “Robots are needed in areas where humans cannot and should not be doing things.”

Orangewood Labs’s robotic arm could keep humans out of the room during powder-coating, a potentially harmful task. Bots such as Combat Robotics’s Arista could replace soldiers in reconnaissance and surveillance missions, potentially saving lives.

Still a far cry from Rosie and UniSol. “I want to see the day when I can be sitting around being lazy and a set of arms does everything for me. That’s the science-fiction kind of dream I have,” says Abhinav Das, co-founder of Orangewood. “We could see that in the next ten years.”

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Power-rangers: Exoskeletons making humans stronger

Think Iron Man. An exoskeleton is something that can be worn to give its wearer “special powers”, typically greater strength. Most exoskeletons aren’t used, Avenger-style, to “save the world”. They’re used to lift heavy things and carry out repetitive tasks while using far less energy.

The one superpower it can bestow is evocative, though. Exoskeletons are being used around the world, including in India, to help the physically challenged walk again.

“I started working on this project because I saw people who were good engineers being ignored for placement opportunities because they were physically limited,” says GenElek founder John Kujur.

In 2013, as part of his final-year BTech thesis at Netaji Subhash Institute of Technology (NSIT) in Delhi, Kujur began researching exoskeletons. A spark was lit, and in 2018, he founded GenElek, with the intention of developing exoskeletons. GenElek was incubated at Electropreneur Park in the Delhi University South Campus, an initiative under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.

“We received office space, assistance with starting and managing the organisation, technical and non-technical training, CSR grants and industry connections. This helped us establish our organisation and build the product,” Kujur says.

GenElek also received a grant of 50 lakh from the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) and campus space from IIT-Delhi (where they are still based).

All this support helped Kujur and his team get to work, and they have built multiple exoskeleton prototypes for use in healthcare, particularly in the fields of physical rehabilitation and for use by those who are wheelchair-bound.

They also got an order for industrial exoskeletons from a logistics company. GenElek now deals in both a battery-powered exoskeleton called Sencibel, which empowers the lower body and is used in healthcare, and a mechanical exoskeleton called Augsy, that is worn over the upper body and helps the user carry out repetitive tasks and literal heavy lifting with less effort.

The frames are a light-weight mix of plastic, composite and metal. While the Augsy weighs just 4 kg, the Sencibel can go up to 18 kg (largely owing to the heavy and bulky battery pack, which Kujur says he hopes to pare down over time).

In addition to its industrial units, GenElek currently has three Sencibels deployed, one each at hospitals in Mumbai, Nagpur and Ahmedabad. “These are early stages,” Kujur says. “Exoskeleton could become common devices to help people, particularly old people, perform a range of day-to-day tasks.”

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An unmanned ground vehicle that can scan the horizon

The battlefield is changing. There aren’t terminators fighting terminators, but already robots are being readied for reconnaissance, a crucial and high-risk endeavour in which a combatant enters enemy territory to map it and identify enemy camps and crucial installations.

In a world where unmanned craft can deploy weapons, bots can disarm bombs, and sniper rifles can be operated remotely, Pune-based Combat Robotics has produced a fully indigenous robot called Arista, that can roll into enemy territory and report back on the lay of the land.

Arista is a small, “chassis-less” robot that looks something like a pair of binoculars. It is just large enough to carry an offensive or defensive payload (surveillance sensors or a small bomb).

The Arista can traverse varied terrain, and is autonomous. “It can make its way from point A to point B on its own. It can detect obstacles and avoid them, as well as manoeuvre through terrains that are rocky, sandy, full of brush, etc,” says Combat Robotics founder Ganesh Suryavanshi.

Suryavanshi, who opted out in the second year of an engineering course, started the company in 2015. His initial funding was a personal loan of 15 lakh.

By 2017 he had his prototype, which underwent rigorous testing for three years. It has since performed trials for the Army Design Bureau at the UGV Experiment 2021, an interaction organised with private defence firms that manufacture unmanned ground vehicles.

Combat Robotics is currently working to make more variations of Arista, including bots with six wheels that can navigate rough terrain better, and an amphibian version that can travel through water.

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Out on a limb: A collaborative robot that can lend a hand

Orangewood Labs started out making wooden furniture. They shot off in the robotics direction because they couldn’t find enough skilled manpower, “even in Noida”, says mechanical engineer and co-founder Abhinav Das, 36.

Orangewood built its first robot in late 2017, a simple automated machine that could cut wood to specifications. That bot proved so effective that the three co-founders — Das; furniture designer and mechanical engineer Aditya Bhatia, 33; and Akash Bansal, 34, who has a background in business and finance — decided to build a different kind of helper. Painting and powder-coating are particularly time-consuming tasks, so, in 2019, the trio set about building a robotic arm that could paint furniture.

Their collaborative robot, or cobot, can be tele-programmed and used remotely. A user can move a graphic of the arm as per requirements (this can also be pre-programmed); the user can also input number of coats, colour to be used and number of repetitions.

The arm itself consists of a base plate on which stand three sets of independently moveable joints that connect two longer sections (also independently moveable), and a “wrist” onto which is attached what is called an end-effector. The end-effector can, in theory, be switched to allow the arm to carry out a range of tasks, from opening a door with a key to mixing cocktails.

“We are looking to deploy the arm for use in various industries, from machine and material handling to palletising and packaging, even welding in the future,” Bhatia says.

What are the risks, given that a robotic arm recently broke a child’s finger at the Moscow Open chess tournament? “Safety and even overdesign for safety are critical to all robotic design, along with operator and handler / end-user training,” says Bansal. The Orangewood robotic arm is currently undergoing safety training, which Bansal says will take a few months.

For now, the bot has been selected by Verizon as one of the robots that will be used to test its Ultra Wideband 5G network.

“I want to see the day when I can be sitting around being lazy and a set of arms does everything for me. That’s the science fiction kind of dream I have,” says Das. “We could see that in the next ten years.”

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Wayfinders helping fliers off the ground

A moving, talking robot strolling about at two airports in India has overcome one crucial hurdle: how to navigate obstacles. And aims to overcome another: how to decode accents.

Mumbai-based Artiligent, founded in 2017, deployed two of its Temi robots at the Coimbatore airport, and ten at the Bengaluru airport, in January 2022, in an ongoing trial.

The Temi is a service robot designed to communicate and guide people through crowded areas. It uses Lidar to conduct a sort of 3D laser scan of spaces, so that it can avoid bumping into things and falling over. (Image: Artiligent)

“Right now they can do two specific things: they can greet passengers and answer questions about flight information or how to reach a particular place in the airport, and they can help a customer find something specific, like coffee or a particular kind of cake,” says Artiligent’s director of solutions Santosh Joshi.

What’s interesting is that the Temi robots don’t just point a flier in the right direction; they can accompany them, without bumping into other fliers or furniture, without stumbling over luggage. In the world of robotics, this is a big deal, and it’s been possible through the use of proprietary hardware and software. The robot uses, for instance, high-depth Lidar (light detection and ranging), a remote-sensing technology that helps it conduct a 3D laser scan of spaces, identify and assess obstacles, and move around them.

For now, the Artiligent robots only speak in English. The aim is for continuous software updation, to make the robot more friendly and equipped with more languages and dialects. “When it comes to dialects, there’s a different one every few hundred km in India. Researching how to get our robots to understand and then reciprocate with answers is something that takes up most of our time right now,” Joshi says.

A new frontier, he adds, is programming bots so they can alter their language and tone to suit different kinds of content. A Temi robot can’t be upbeat when telling a passenger they might have just missed their flight. “It cannot announce happy and sad news in the same pitch,” Joshi says. “That is something we and the Googles and Alexas of the world are working on.”

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