Jnaneshwar Das and Mrinal Kalakrishnan, barely out of their teens, are already experts at making complex robots
WHILE MOST of their friends and peers spend time playing videogames, 22-year-old Jnaneshwar Das and 21-year-old Mrinal Kalakrishnan are busy building intelligent thinking machines. There is no greater passion in the lives of these two engineering students than robotics, the science of building robots.
It all began innocently enough, they say. Jnaneswar, who grew up surrounded by machinery, developed an interest in electronics at an early age. In school, he began to take apart simple machines to see what made them tick. By the time he was in his first year of engineering, he had begun to build simple robots. Mrinal, on the other hand, was always drawn to software, and is something of a programming genius. In PESIT, the two met and began to work together on more complex robots.
One of their first creations was the Pick and Place robot, i.e. a robot that could pick up an object from one spot and place it at another. Another robot the two have built is a mobile vehicle that can sense obstacles in its path through sensors and avoid them. One unique feature of all their robots is that they are created mostly out of junk, and therefore, are inexpensive. The Pick and Place robot cost them just Rs. 500 to make, while they invested Rs. 3,000 to create the Mobile Robot. "We buy most of our equipment at the Sunday Market in Shivajinagar, where everything comes dirt cheap," reveals Mrinal.
One of the duo's first creations was the Pick and Place robot, that could pick up an object from one spot and place it at another.
Jnaneshwar says that robots, today, occupy almost all of their free time. "Especially when we're close to a deadline, we spend close to five or six hours every day working on our projects." All those sleepless nights have not been in vain, and the duo has won several prizes at competitions in colleges like RVCE, SIT Tumkur, and IIT Madras. They have also demonstrated their creations at many places including at a Linux conference held at the J.N. Tata Auditorium.
Talking about their latest project Comrade excites the two youngsters. The project is an attempt at making different robots co-operate with each other through a wireless network and involves building two robots one that finds objects through video cameras and another that picks them up with a robotic arm. Largely sponsored by Yahoo, this project is nothing like their previous ones according to Mrinal. With video cameras for visual sensors, and palm-top computers to interface between the different robots, Project Comrade is an advanced, high-tech project. "This project is an ambitious one, because all the parameters change when you have to work with more than one robot," says Jnaneshwar. This one is expensive, he explains, as most of the equipment being used had to be imported.
Jnaneshwar and Mrinal say that they are passionate about robotics as it is a combination of virtually every science known to man, from engineering to physics to maths. Nowadays, with attempts to make robots more humane, even biology and chemistry are being integrated into the field. "It is a wonderful feeling of pushing every science to the limit," says Jnaneshwar.
The two are thankful to their parents and teachers, who, they say, are supportive of their endeavours. "Our professors initially underestimated us, but once they saw our work, they were eager to help us in any way possible." While both want to pursue robotics as a profession, they complain that not much is being done in the direction of robotics research in India. "Out here, companies only build industrial robots, reproducing already existing technology. While there is a lot of interest in robotics, funds or infrastructure are not available even in the most prominent engineering institutions." The two-robotics enthusiasts want to find others like them and provide a platform for such activities. (You can contact them on firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Mrinal sums up on what keeps them ticking: "To see something you create do tasks in the real world is a great feeling."
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