Introducing the Nepali Robot

Of many things we find hard to associate ourselves with, robotics must be one. Nevertheless, winning international competitions, building 3D printers and revamping the education system might change your disposition.

In March of this year, a few Nepali engineering students went to India to participate in the international Autonomous Robotic Challenge [iARC] organized at IIT Kanpur – Techkriti’13, competing with participants from countries like Japan, UAE, Singapore, Thailand, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The fact that Nepal participated would already be seen as progress by many. The two participating Nepali teams, Nepal College of Information Technology (NCIT) and Advanced College of Engineering and Management (ACEM) came second and third respectively. “Besides coming second and third, our guys even helped the participants from Dubai to finish their robot,” says Pavitra Gautam, President of Robotics Association of Nepal (RAN).

Before getting the chance to put forward a question, my interviewee Gautam posed one at me instead “What is the first thing that comes to your mind when someone mentions robots?” Not to his surprise, my answer was along the lines of describing metallic humanoids. He tried to justify my limited reply by telling me I wasn’t the first to answer with that. Despite the fact that most people in the country probably haven’t even heard of robots, let alone know the accurate definition of one, such an achievenment by the participants is not just a prize for a few, but also a moment of self actualisation for many.

The two groups were selected from a national level robotics competetion, e-Sewa Yantra GRC Techkriti 2013, organized by RAN. The latter, not-for-profit organization, has been organizing inter-college level engineering workshops, exhibitions and competitions, including Nepal’s first national level robotics competition, Yantra 1.0, since its inception in 2009. Since then RAN has grown from ten colleges to twenty five. In this time, RAN has conducted five national level robotics exhibitions, and conducted trainings for more than a thousand school and college students. “Before RAN came into existence, work in robotics was scattered. Now there is a sense of order, with different people involved in robotics working as part of a community,” says Gautam. Gautam also adds, “being organized has also helped us go beyond Kathmandu. Through our workshops we have had the chance to meet individuals working in robotics outside the valley who haven’t had the chance to formalize their skills. RAN has made it possible to provide new opportunities for such individuals.”

As RAN works toward organizing the robotics scene, Karkhana, a for-profit company established in December 2012 and of which Gautam is also Co-founder, is working to create a new batch of robot makers. The company is making robots that help teach maths, science, techonology and engineering to school level students. “I hardly remember most things I was taught back in school. Do you remember Archimedes’ Principle? Most people don’t. But what if we were taught with a miniature boat? That would have had a deeper impression on us,” questions Gautam. Karkhana is involved with several schools to introduce a more participatory form of learning for students. Aside from making learning fun, with robots to work with, these students are going to be better equipped to compete in an increasingly technology-driven world. To show for the capacity of the robots they have for the curriculum, the Educational Robot Karkhana Rover – an all-terrain video capturing robot -which is part of the curriculum, won the local level NASA Space Apps Challenge in April this year.

Karkhana’s office in Gyaneswor has more guitars lying on the floor than there are chairs to sit on (they have chakatis). Any concerns you may have will be pacified by the 3D printer they have just built from scratch. Their innovations also include an e-Sewa mobile cash vending machine, automatic timer power strip, solar power monitoring system and ‘Lab in a Bag’ – a solar powered afforadable laptop (in progress), to name a few. As for helping the wider robotics community, they have also set up an online shop to supply electronic components used in robotics at subsidized rates.

As cool as it may all seem, there is a greater sense of purpose that combines all these efforts. From the capacity to transform our daily lives in every small way to transforming the economy by introducing innovation in industrial processes, these efforts lead to the positive change that Nepalis dream about. There is still ground to cover, these efforts need to be supported by a society that rewards innovation. “It’s not just us, there is a lot of work on robotics that is happening here. In TU alone, four hundred electronic projects were done last year. We need these innovations to be recognised and assimilated in the way we do things,” says Gautam. Then perhaps the news of a few Nepalese students winning robotics competetion against the Japanese, Singaporeans and Indians would not surprise us anymore.

Upcoming Yantra 2.0

Karkhana and Robotics Association of Nepal are organizing their third national robotics championship -Yantra 2.0. With Yantra 1.0, they attracted over 100 participants from 20 engineering colleges and 3,000 visitors. With Yantra GRC Techkriti, they came up with two winners, who then came 2nd and 3rd in IIT Kanpur against teams from seven countries. Now with Yantra 2.0, the stakes are even higher and they are putting everything to scale even higher. Yantra 2.0 is going to include participants from a more engineering colleges, including those outside the Kathmandu Valley. And also, it will be drawing teams from schools (class 7-10) and +2 colleges.

For more information and registration, go to www.karkhana.asia

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