Solving real-world issues the IIT-B way
By marking problems as 'games with a rule book', the institute is encouraging students to create solutions using Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and IoT
When you next visit the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B), you may also consider spending some time on the terrace of the building that houses the computer science and engineering unit.
Initially, you may wonder what the fuss is all about since all that you get to see are numerous troughs with vegetables like brinjals and beans and some fruits like papaya growing in them. However, Kavi Arya, a professor at IIT-B’s computer science and engineering unit, explains that what appears to be a simple urban terrace garden exercise is actually a test-bed for engineering students to experiment with technology.
Prof. Arya, who heads this project called k-Yantra, points out that IIT-B has “automated the drip irrigation" using the Internet of Things (IoT) concept which enables “things" like sensors and gadgets to be connected any time, any place, and with anything or anyone.
The valves for drip irrigation, for instance, are powered by batteries and communicate with a Raspberry Pi server—a series of small single-board computers. “Based on a fixed schedule or by sensing the humidity in the soil, the actuators (devices that convert energy into motion) can be triggered," Prof. Arya explains. Some M.Tech students at IIT-B are also working on a solar-powered actuator to automate watering of the plants.
IIT-B uses amrut mitti (loosely translated as “nectar soil") that comprises 1kg cow dung, 1 litre cow urine and 50mg jaggery. This soil is sprinkled on layers of soaked leaves in each trough, following which six types of seeds are planted, according to Prof. Arya. When the seeds start sprouting, the green shoots are trimmed and mixed again with the soil to “get a very potent mixture that is also pest-resistant," according to Ajit Harpude, a project assistant.
Prof. Arya points out that students learn a lot about technology from this exercise. For instance, harvesting is a challenge and “machine learning (ML) can be used to identify a specific fruit or vegetable and harvest it automatically", he says.
“We started with five labs (in other colleges) in Mumbai and are showing them how to use technology for urban farming—how to make these valves, actuators, etc.," says Prof. Arya. He now wants to extend this idea to help people living in urban areas set up neighbourhood farms while youngsters could use technologies like drone- or robot-based planting of seeds to automate the process.
K-Yantra is part of IIT-B’s larger e-Yantra Robotics Competition (eYRC), which is sponsored by the ministry of human resources development under the National Mission on Education and is supported by IIT-B. Prof. Arya conceived the idea for e-Yantra in 2009 when teaching a course on embedded systems. The distance education began by educating batches of faculty members from engineering colleges all over the country. The team initially believed they had the “magic ingredients to make engineering learning and teaching very exciting" but soon met with failure because the colleges, where the distance education was being imparted, did not have the adequate infrastructure or robots.
So IIT-B designed a robot with the help of Mumbai-based Nex Robotics, which was founded in 2006 by IIT-B faculty and students. The robot is a micro-controller platform with many sensors (like proximity and motion sensors). It has a display screen, which can communicate wirelessly using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. The upper portion of the robot has a processor that can be changed according to specifications. “It costs around Rs30,000 with accessories. We are now in the process of having more vendors to manufacture it. The form factor, design and idea (Intellectual Property, or IP) is with IIT-B," says Prof. Arya.
IIT-B simultaneously decided to package theory and practice by holding a robotics competition. The institute received 4,000 registrations in 2012. However, training the students on the IIT-B campus in such large numbers would have proved a “logistics nightmare", so the institute decided to give the students a robot, and lectures on a CD to help them learn to program the robot on their own.
“We give them a real-world problem, abstract it as a game with a rule book to help objective scoring. Students have to solve the problem and upload a video. We evaluate the videos and call them for the finals. We, then, tweak the theme. This formula has worked well," says Prof. Arya, adding that in 2017, they received about 24,000 registrations from all over the country.
The winners are offered a six-week internship at IITs that also includes “lectures on history, investment strategies, soft skills, theatre workshops and even meditation besides field trips", says Prof. Arya.
Chinmay C., a fifth semester student in the electronics and communication department at the RV College of Engineering in Karnataka, was one such beneficiary of this inter-disciplinary learning during his internship at IIT-B. “The e-Yantra summer internship programme has provided a wonderful experience," he says, adding, “working late nights, exploring new stuff, making new mistakes and learning from them, and never giving in despite failures," were some of the “new things that I have learnt."
IIT-B now has 280 laboratories across the country. The principals of the engineering schools who want these labs have “to commit to investing Rs2 lakh and provide four teachers across disciplines (engineering, etc.) to be trained and pass all our workshop training tests for about three months." All teachers have to complete the tasks (primarily, programming the robot), failing which IIT-B does not set up the lab. “If they succeed, we have a virtual inauguration and give them three robots and certificates," Prof. Arya says.
Consider the case of Dattajirao Kadam Education (DTKE) Society’s Textile and Engineering Institute at Ichalkaranji in Maharashtra. It is the first nodal centre of IIT-B for the western region and mentors 14 engineering colleges in the region. “We have our own robotics labs and conduct many robotics competitions," says Prof. D.V. Kodavade, head of the computer science and engineering department at the engineering institute.
This year, for instance, some students in the western region have “used the Galileo Gen 2.0 and Raspberry PI platforms" and built a mobile phone-based fire-fighting robot and a staircase-climbing spider robot. Additionally, they developed a staircase-climbing spider robot, an automatic lawn grass-mower robot; an accelerometer-based robotic arm and a motorbike navigation and control contraption using IoT. The students even built a pick-and-place-type robot for textile mills that can handle bobbins on spinning machines to cater to the numerous mid-sized textile mills in the region, according to Prof. Kodavade.
About 60,000 students have participated in the robotic competitions organized by IIT-B in the last eight years.
The next step, according to Prof. Arya, is to engage these students with the local industry. “Now they have manpower that can see a problem and build a machine. When we send these students out to companies, they can help small and medium-sized enterprises to build a scale prototype that can automate processes and reduce operational costs," he adds.
IIT-B is also talking to the information and broadcasting ministry to convert e-Yantra’s annual robotics competition into a reality show. According to Prof. Arya the idea is to make engineering appealing to families and get the parents of engineering students to “get the conversation going". He concludes, “automation is killing jobs so we need to create more entrepreneurs who can make such innovative devices."