Solapur is a little over six hours by train from Mumbai. Those who travel regularly to Solapur and back will tell you to book your tickets in advance if you’re planning a trip by III Tier AC to this outpost in Maharashtra for, on weekends sugar barons travel between Solapur and Mumbai and there’s nary a ticket to be had if you haven’t planned your travel in advance.
Siddeshwar Express is the preferred mode of travel to Solapur and back, depositing the traveler in Mumbai at the break of dawn. “It saves you daytime,” is a common refrain of travelers who choose to travel by the Siddeshwar Express. And so it was with Zeeshan Sayyed and team who landed in Mumbai on the morning the IIT Mumbai Tech Fest 2009 opened on the sprawling Powai campus. “We landed early morning today,” Swagat Jain, a teammate told us.
The IIT Tech Fest is arguably Asia’s largest Science and Technology festival. Spread over three days it hosts hundreds of participants at the Powai campus of the Indian Institute of Technology. The 2009 edition of the Technology Festival kicked off a little over a week ago, on the 24th of January, and concluded on the 26th.
We met Zeeshan’s team outside the Shailesh J. Mehta School of Management. The Little Devil lay stretched out in the mud across from where the team sat talking among themselves in a tight circle. The team exuded a quiet confidence in the Little Devil now that it had just bested an opponent in the one-to-one Robowars and advanced to the next round in the Knockout event. Combat Robotics is what they named these battles, locking competing robots in a ‘mortal combat’ of machine versus machine.
Over 28 Engineering Colleges had confirmed their participation in the event, and they came from as far as Guwahati, Bharuch, Alwar, Indore, Jabalpur, Chennai, Solapur, and Bhubaneshwar among others, lugging the fearsome looking robots by public transport.
“Didn’t the Indian Railway Officials ask you about the Little Devil on boarding the Siddeshwar Express,” I asked Swagat. Considering the mass of wires and electrical and mechanical components that made up the robot I would’ve been surprised if Indian Railway officials hadn’t batted an eyelid on seeing it in the corner of a train compartment, more so considering the general nervousness in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist strikes.
“Oh yes, they did,” he replied. “We showed them the invitation letter from the Indian Institute of Technology, and produced letters from our institute, Walchand Institute of Technology.
Their robot, the Little Devil, took them over a month and half to design and assemble, and cost them Rs. 20,000. The six of them, engineering students all, pooled their money together and came up with this trapezoidal monster that actually looked amiable from the distance.
“It is designed to lift an opponent weighing 35 kilos,” Zeeshan proffered, “five kilos over the size limit specified for the competition.”
Wires tailed the Little Devil where it lay in silence. The team had designed an electrical system to control its movement.
Innovating with Honda Activa’s gears and motorcycle chains, and leveraging DC geared motors to generate sufficient torque as well as ample speed, the team had rigged up the four wheels they had sourced from Lamington Road to provide them with optimum mobility to attack the opponent.
“To turn the Little Devil, we throw the switch into reverse, turning the rear wheels anti-clockwise to make it pivot and change direction,” Swagat explained.
Though remote control systems were allowed for use in controlling the robots, most teams preferred using wires to control the robots electrically. Moreover the rules for Robowars forbid the use of IC engines.
The Little Devil’s destructive power came from the pneumatic device driving its arm.
“We designed the Little Devil to lift its opponent with this arm here and topple it,” Zeeshan said, pointing to the metal arm that now lay stretched out in to the front of the machine. “It is powered by a pneumatic pump,” he told us. While we stood there admiring the Devil, every once in a while we turned to see other robots filing past, each painted colourfully and exuding menace in the weaponry they carried that was designed for destruction.
Weapons Systems permitted by the rules for the Robowars included among others, liquid projectiles, flame-based weapons, any kind of explosive or intentionally ignited solid, radio jamming, tazers, tesla coils, other high voltage devices, un-tethered projectiles, and tethered projectiles in any direction are allowed with each having a maximum tether of 4 feet.
I thought this was as liberal a license for violence as any one could come up with for machines, and would test the contestants for innovation and a certain entrepreneurial streak. At stake was Rs. 45,000, and pride, and yes, prejudice as teams quietly went about fancying their chances against the rest.
The Robowars knockout rounds were held at the SOM Well. The seating was full to overflowing as robots engaged in ‘Mortal Combat’. Cheers would erupt as robots jockeyed for positions, maneuvering in the enclosure to deliver that knockout blow. It wasn’t enough that you built a robot, you had to make it work against an opponent. The event tested everyone involved – the engineers, the robots, and the audience. The latter glued to the action.
Standing there and watching the enthusiasm of the participants and the audience it is easy to believe in the potential for entrepreneurship if an idea gets hold of you sufficiently enough to want to explore it. At places such as these the spirit of competition can sufficiently fire thinking and maybe spur innovations to solve problems at local levels.
And Robotics has the potential to do just that. Maybe the next time the IIT-B Tech Fest comes around we might see participants competing with robots designed to solve just such problems that affect people locally, and maybe make a difference to their lives.
And what might those problems be?