In the first week of May, the Solapur division of Indian Railways unveiled a humanoid robot it had developed. It was 4ft tall and looked like a metal bin. It had a tray for hands and its “face”, which resembled a table-tennis racket, had LED lights for eyeballs. There was a mobile phone in place of its “mouth”. They called it Sarathi (charioteer).
“Like in the Mahabharat,” says Suryakant Munjewar, its creator and an engineer with the railways’ central zone. “The way they had helped fighters during the battle (of Kurukshetra), this (Sarathi) too will help our corona warriors.”
To begin with, the remote-controlled robot was deployed at the Dr Kotnis Railway Hospital in Solapur. The tray would carry medicines and other essentials to patients. The mobile phone mounted on it helped patients consult doctors and interact with their family members.
Using robots to help maintain physical distancing isn’t a new concept. Some hospitals in Italy and Belgium had started doing this soon after the covid-19 outbreak. In India, too, a private firm, Milagrow HumanTech, had deployed them at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi as well as at some private hospitals to enable remote consultation and medicine delivery. These are slick machines with a touch-screen interface, wing-like panels for arms and digital eyes that blink. They even dance for patients, though the moves mostly consist of flapping their “arms” and rotating around the axis.
In comparison, Sarathi is fairly basic. It moves slowly, needs a flat surface to work and looks like it can be easily knocked over. And yet, in the spirit of Make in India later expanded under the catchphrase Atmanirbhar Bharat), the robot was widely covered in the local media. Union railway minister Piyush Goyal too tweeted about the robots on 6 May. Over the weeks that followed, more railway teams seized the initiative and released their own iterations. Hyderabad got an “R-Bot”, Mumbai got a “Rakshak” and “Jivaka”, Solapur came up with an upgrade to its first iteration and made a (Ro)Bot. Each of them has been used in railway hospitals in the cities they were created in, though it is not clear how many have been deployed or how useful they have been.
In many ways, the robots are part of the post- pandemic acceleration to adoption of digital technology. Besides, this isn’t the first time Indian Railways has developed robots, though instances have been few and far between: In 2018, for instance, Central Railway developed USTAAD (Undergear Surveillance Through Artificial Intelligence Assisted Droid), a robot, to inspect the underbelly of the coaches in real time.
Serving the nation
Vivek Acharya is the chief railway workshop manager in Parel, Mumbai. In August, his workshop manufactured Jivaka in association with the Mumbai-based tech firm Dronestark Technologies and BGN Medtex (India) Pvt. Ltd. Acharya says he started working on the idea in April, after a conversation with authorities at the city-based railway hospital. “It was to simplify the (process of) doctors’ routine checkups, like monitoring temperature, blood pressure, oxygen levels, and giving food and medicine.”
Robot-making isn’t their domain of expertise, he admits, but they did have research budget and free time. “We didn’t have much work going on since the lockdown was imposed,” he says. “I didn’t want my team to feel empty.”
The robot from Acharya’s team, Jivaka, is deployed at the Dr Ambedkar Railway Hospital in Byculla, Mumbai. Conceptually, it is similar to most robots developed post-pandemic. They are Wi-Fi-enabled and can be controlled via a remote device or a mobile app. The difference lies in the appearance. Jivika looks like an airline service trolley and moves along a yellow strip that’s pasted on ward floors. The short, nifty (Ro)Bot in Solapur repurposes plumbing pipes for arms. Manufacturing costs range from ₹40,000 to ₹3 lakh, depending on the hardware and software used.
There are robots that aren’t quite “robots” too. Take Captain Arjun (full form: Always be Responsible and Just Use to be Nice), who greets commuters at the Pune railway station. Captain Arjun is a remote-operated handcart with a human-looking torso mounted on it. It wears a navy-blue suit and cap, and has an infrared thermometer in one arm, sanitizer in another and a camera in its “face”. People entering the station are to lean in front of its thermometer-arm for a temperature check.
Rajendra B. Aklekar, journalist author of Halt Station India, a book on the history of Indian Railways, says the railways has a history of innovation. “They have a culture of stepping up for the nation in times of crisis, right from the time the British managed it,” he says. “During the plague of 1898, they had designed coaches when people were required to be quarantined. In the Indo-China and Indo-Pakistan war in the 1960s and 1970s, their manufacturing units were also making arms and ammunition like hand grenades.”
A similar exercise started after the covid-9 pandemic, he adds: “In Mumbai, for example, the workshops had started making hand-gloves, masks and sanitizer too.”
It’s not difficult for the railways to initiate new projects and rope in the relevant expertise, says Aklekar. They do, after all, have the funds, infrastructure and manpower.
Despite all this, however, the image of the railways is that of a staid, outdated locomotive stuck in time. It doesn’t help its case that its booking website is clunky, it doesn’t have high-speed corridors and the interior design of coaches has seen little innovation for decades.
“Innovation is stagnant because of the misplaced priorities,” says Aklekar. “Every politician says we want a railway in our area. Their focus is on expanding services instead of improving the quality of existing ones.” In this context, he adds, the robots could likely turn out to be a one-time gimmick: “Every zone has to prove hum log ne ye kiya hai (this is what we have done).”
Meanwhile, as the covid-19 case load mounts, it’s unclear if the robots are being used extensively. The spotty internet connection in wards, coupled with long charging times, can be deterrents. In July, The New Indian Express reported that three robots donated to a government hospital in Tamil Nadu had fallen into disuse within a month. And while Central Railway insists its robots are in use, it refused to facilitate Mint’s requests to visit the railway hospital in Mumbai.
As Indian Railways opens up, its engineers have resumed their primary responsibilities of manufacture and maintenance of engines and coaches. There are no immediate plans to scale up the innovation, says Acharya. But the project, he adds, goes some way in demonstrating the capability of Indian engineers in the digital age. “We wanted to show that agar government darwaza khol ke hawa aane de (if we are allowed), we can do wonders.”