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Automative Aspirations – RoboManipal

There is a flurry of excitement in the workshop as newly printed T-shirts are hauled in and a glint of pride is visible in their eyes as everyone looks at their names on the back. The RoboManipal team will don these T-shirts when they compete in the national Robocon, where they will compete with teams from all over the country for the honor of representing India at the international competition in Tokyo.

RoboManipal, as MIT’s official robotics team, represents the college in various robotics competitions. Their primary focus is the ABU Asia-Pacific Robot Competition, or ABU Robocon. The work begins when the problem statement, that explains the task the robots will need to accomplish, is released. This happens in August, and the next six months are spent building a bot equipped to face the challenge.

The arena at this year’s contest will feature seven pedestals with a beach ball placed on each. The aim is to use robots to toss Frisbees and land them on the pedestals, displacing the balls off of them . The task is further complicated by the fact that the pedestals are of different heights and the Frisbees themselves all vary in their dimensions. RoboManipal has built a small-scale arena within the Automobile Workshop. As the contest dates inched closer, the team members pulled all-nighters in fine-tuning their bot. This robot was officially unveiled on the 24th of February, in the presence of Dr. Gopalakrishna Prabhu (Director of MIT, Manipal), Dr. BHV Pai (Joint Director of MIT, Manipal), and Dr. Arun Shanbhag (CEO of Manipal University Technology Business Incubator). The bot has been dismantled and carried to Pune, where it will be reassembled for the contest. In the past, they have had small victories such as making it into the Super-leagues – which comprises only the top few of the hundred-or-more participating teams. RoboManipal is going into the competition aiming to best their earlier performances. More than the substantial prize money on offer, it is the opportunity to be India’s representative in Tokyo that drives them.

RoboManipal also has its eye on the future and a hand in bringing it closer to the present. Its members have worked on innovations in transportation like the Automated Skateboard and the Automated Parking System. They’ve also used the concept of ‘Internet of Things’ to develop Smart Home Automation, where the user can remote-control the various devices in his house.

With as many student projects as there are, deciding which one to join is not always easy. “Most of the other projects have a fixed problem statement. For example, some of the racecar teams just continue to improve upon their existing vehicles. In RoboManipal, however, we do something completely new each time. Every year, we build a different robot from scratch,” says Team Leader Sriram Polisetty, on being asked what sets RoboManipal apart from the other endeavors.

Speaking on the recruitment themselves, Sriram explains that – unlike how they recruit second years -they don’t look for much technical knowledge while picking first year students. Rather, their approach to problems unrelated to robotics is tested. “We try to look at how well they’re able to think,” he explains. The members are split up into four subsystems: Mechanical, Electronics, Coding, and Management. Addressing the reputation that student projects have of being incredibly time-consuming, he says that the work isn’t very hectic except when Robocon is close. They even take a week off during the Sessional Examinations.

Even the best of teams can accomplish little without the right support which makes it essential for all projects to have the right sponsors. RoboManipal is backed by Credence Robotics, its official Technology Partner.  Additionally, MIT itself extends support to RoboManipal. While there are no complaints regarding the workshop space and technical facilities, they’ve experienced problems with the funding – particularly this year. The schedule for the allocation of funds did not match with the Robocon schedule. Being tight on funds, Team Leader Sriram says that some members have even pitched in their own money.

The fear that machines will lead to a scenario where humans will be displaced of their jobs seem trivial and without merit when standing in the RoboManipal workshop.. Far from eliminating the need for human creativity, the field of robotics inspires intelligence and innovation. RoboManipal doesn’t just churn out a new robot every year. Within these walls, something greater is produced: a force of engineers equipped with the skill-sets to build the future.

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