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Freedom Issue

Pulkit Gaur: The Geek as Humanist

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He wants to replace humans in hazardous occupations with robots
Next to thumb-sucking and nail-biting, one of the most common habits among children is to break open toys out of curiosity to see what is inside. Pulkit Gaur, founder of Ahmedabad-headquartered robotics firm Gridbots Technologies Pvt Ltd, says his journey as an obsessive and compulsive innovator started when he was at his destructive best with toys. Unlike most children, young Pulkit would re-assemble the toys he had dismembered, as best he could, his parents remember. “That was when I started learning how things were made,” says this 34-year-old Jodhpur- born roboticist whose company makes products after identifying a problem and working out how robots can help solve it. A beefy man of medium height, Gaur has a serious face lit up with intelligent eyes. “We don’t make robots anticipating that they could be used to fight a certain kind of problem. We make them for very very specific reasons,” he adds.

The image of carcasses floating in underground water tanks in his water-scarce home state Rajasthan had always troubled him. After all, it was the same water that was pumped up to an elevated tank before it was released to the public for consumption. “This was a serious problem for those who couldn’t afford an RO system, and the first thing that came to my mind after I founded my robotics company in 2007 was to solve that problem,” recalls Gaur, who had graduated magna cum laude as a Bachelor of Engineering from the famous Jodhpur Engineering College in 2004. Gaur currently rents out robots to municipalities and corporations to clean such storage tanks for a fee.

The problem was tough to crack. Underground water tanks were not easy to clean. The only choice was to empty the whole tank—which in drought- prone states was not a viable option, thanks to lack of alternative sources of water. Gaur and his team designed a robot that would enter the underground water tank and suck out all the filth through a pump. “Instead of losing 100 per cent water, our robot ensured that such tanks could be cleaned with a loss of just 5 per cent of water,” says Gaur. The water-proof, rust-proof robot, named Sausr (short for smart autonomous underwater service robot), has sensors with cameras to detect temperature, direction, acidity measurement and so on. Weighing 80 kg, the 3 ft by 5 ft robot can probe 50 metres below the water surface and can be operated using a keyboard and a monitor.

While the social commitment of building the product is highly laudable, Gaur sustains his business using a rent-for-use model, typically, not by selling the robots, which are in the range of Rs 7.5 lakh to Rs 12.5 lakh.

For someone who had built a transmitter by which he could listen to conversations between local policemen on their 7 mega hertz walkie-talkies when he was just 10, Gaur is obsessed with his laptop, his favourite gadget, on which he is busy these days doing what he does best: writing code. This computer geek has had no formal education in computers. All he learnt of these machines was from people he had worked with, from books and by the sheer practice of working on a computer he had acquired when he finished his Class X. “When I stood first in my school in the 10th board exams, my father promised me a Hero Puch (a moped). I said I would go for a computer,” he says with his trademark controlled smile. By then, he was already an electronics nut, visiting scrap shops, gorging on books and science magazines that published circuits to build radios and other products, and befriending electronics vendors to learn the basics.

Gaur, who made a name cleaning up underground storage tanks, found that his robot, with modification, would find application in industries that needed to clean up water in assorted storage systems. He got calls from organisations such as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) following the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power facility in Japan. In March 2011, an earthquake and a tsunami had damaged the stainless steel tanks that stored radioactive fuel rods at the plant. BARC wanted to secure similar tanks against any possible leakage. In the wake of the radioactive disaster at Fukushima, which badly harmed aquatic life in the Pacific Ocean, reactors across the world wanted to put safety mechanisms in place.

In December 2012, Gridbots Technologies delivered a robot to help prevent any radioactive leakage from BARC’s refinery. “We visited BARC several times to see to it that the robot is modified to the client’s specifications. It was a Government of India project, which we have completed,” says Gaur. He now plans to develop robots to decommission nuclear plants across Europe. His company was approached even by Japanese firms to help protect nuclear facilities there from radioactive spills. In fact, leviathans like Toshiba had failed to make a viable product at the Fukushima plant. “It is on that stage that we are success fully competing and we see ourselves fully capable of meeting the challenges,” he says, gesticulating enthusiastically, his shirt sleeves folded up. When he enrolled for his BE, he had already built several small robots—which he had then called ‘vehicles’—and so he had to aim higher, and he did. “I decided that I would make an operating system (OS) myself,” he says. By the time he appeared for his first-year exams at Jodhpur Engineering College, he had created an OS, titled Intense, working on his computer, a pre-Pentium model his father bought for him for Rs 20,000 just after he passed Class X. He was tenacious, as evident from his resolve as a young student to stick to bicycling up and down 7 km to school every day because he preferred a computer to a moped. He credits his father, DK Gaur, a former intelligence officer, with “inducing the love of machines” in him by putting him in touch with electronics experts who had sub-contracted work from the local DRDO lab, which had in turn introduced him to the world of computers at the defence institute. The scientists at the DRDO lab were surprised at Gaur’s great command over electronics at his young age. “It was a dream came true [to work with defence scientists]. It was then that I first had a glimpse of mainframe computers. It was then I really wanted to become a computer programmer or a hacker,” reminisces Gaur.

What invariably upsets Gaur is how Indians tend to despise themselves “too much”. “Baahar ki company hai (Is it a foreign company)?” is a question he often encounters at major exhibitions and conferences. He says he is partly happy because Gridbots has acquired the reputation of being a world-class company. He is, however, piqued about the assumption in the question that Indian companies can’t make top-class products. His experience of building cutting-edge technologies at home has given him all the confidence he needs for that.

As regards helping nuclear companies decommission their plants in Europe, he says his company hopes to play a big role. “We have many firsts to our credit and we want to prove it to the world at large,” he says. Not long ago, when a Tata Power plant had to be shut down because a log of wood had got stuck in a steam pipeline, experts recommended cutting open the pipe to extract it. It took Gaur and his team less than 72 hours to remove it and put the power plant back at work. No wonder then that in a recent report the Union Government listed Gaur among 25 high-tech innovators in the country. But then, accolades are not new to this ardent admirer of Apple co-founder and maker of Apple computers, Steve Wozniak, and Linus Torvalds, the Finnish American software engineer who was the principal author of the development of the Linux kernel, the fundamental part of operating systems. As an engineering student, Gaur had shown great promise in both hardware and software development. From 2002 to 2004, when he completed his degree, he had been selected year after year to exhibit at a coveted tech fest held at IIT Bombay. He has, over time, made it to the list of top-notch innovators selected by MIT Technology Review, one of the world’s most respected technology magazines. He has also been named a TED Fellow—which Gaur describes as the best recognition for an innovator.

Gridbots is now focusing on replacing humans in “dirty, dangerous and dull” jobs. One of them is scavenging inside sewers that carry human excreta. Gaur and his team have designed a robot to clean sewers for Tata Trust, which, according to its official website, has supported a nationwide survey on the status of manual scavenging in the country. The robot, says Gaur, goes inside the sewer and then cleans it up with the help of pumps. “Once the robot cleans a sewer, it doesn’t need to be cleaned for the next three years,” he elaborates, emphasising that the product helps save lives of people in a profession that is integrally related to their caste. The manual carrying of human faeces renders workers unhealthy at an early age, and, according to several reports, results in many premature deaths. Shunned by society, they continue to live on the fringes as the country marches ahead and creates panel after panel to stamp out the practice. Gaur believes that manual scavengers, who are more or less a hidden community, need liberation and rehabilitation. The practice is a crime against man, he says. No doubt his products have a direct impact on a huge chunk of society, especially the marginalised and the poor. As a young graduate, he had made products for the visually impaired that included an artificial retina, distance measuring software and so on.

Gaur’s decision to set up his own business was unexpected. Prior to that, he had worked for a multinational company in Ahmedabad for three years after completing his BE, securing frequent promotions and higher pay. But by 2006, he says he was “pissed off” with what he was doing—it was mostly a management job. He had offers from bigger companies like Google, among others. But he wanted to develop his own products. There, too, he didn’t want a venture capitalist to dictate terms. Which is why he and his team chose to generate revenues on their own at Gridbot.

Within seven months of launching the company, Gaur had exhausted all his savings. The parents were concerned and rued that he had rejected plum job offers. But he was in no mood to give up. He soon found a way out: consulting. He would spend 7-8 days a month at Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design, lecturing on robotics. He says he earned enough money to keep the company afloat, before big orders came in. Gridbots was incubated at the Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

The small-town boy’s determination to do something of his interest and on his own terms runs deep. After completing his studies in production and industrial engineering, he appeared for Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE), a test for an undergraduate to pursue higher studies, and he scored very high in the Information Technology category. However, he was denied a seat at the prestigious IISc Bangalore because his stream was not information technology. He persisted with his request, but to no avail. He refused to join an IIT after clearing the CAT because he didn’t make it to the specific institute he wanted to join. “Which is why I decided to get myself a job,” Gaur says. Again, it was the same grit that prompted him to quit the job and start his own business. “My mother was terrified because I was the first one from my family to enter the business arena. She still regrets that I didn’t take up an MNC job,” he smiles. He looks after innovation at his company, while his two other colleagues—three of them form the core group—look after the design and software divisions.

When it comes to making cost-effective, indigenous products, Gridbots does have an edge, analysts say. A Mumbai-based infotech analyst says that such smaller companies can play a crucial role in the much-vaunted ‘Make in India’ campaign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi—the ambitious project envisages steering the growth of the domestic manufacturing industry, which is expected to contribute 25 per cent to the country’s GDP in 2020 from a mere 16 per cent currently. “Companies like us can definitely play a pivotal role,” Gaur says with the confidence of man whose clients, among others, include the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro). For the premier space research body, Gridbots has developed a system that is used for the alignment of radio antennas. Until lately, Isro used to buy such equipment from overseas contractors. “We were the only Indian company that made a bid, and we secured the contract,” says Gaur, who adds that as opposed to Rs 1.2 crore for the foreign equipment, his company sold Isro its system for Rs 20 lakh. “We are yet to deliver the final, modified model to Isro,” he admits nonchalantly. His Ahmedabad-based company has made much headway in developing several other hi-tech products. These include robots that can defuse bombs and cameras that detect radiation. Gaur and his team have already given demonstrations of some products to the Indian Army. “As of now, we are the only Indian company that makes many such products,” he says with an endearing, youthful sort of pride. “It helps that we have strong design and simulation teams,” offers Gaur. He uses two phones: one a smartphone to check his mail, and the other a basic Nokia phone to make calls and send text messages.

Gaur says that the company is planning to expand aggressively in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) segment. It is developing products that can even make human resources departments redundant, he declares. Recently, he helped an Ahmedabad businessman replace 40 people with four robots on conveyor lines. The man had complained of shortage of manpower and the sloppy work of employees, says Gaur, who argues that human beings should devote more time and energy to what they are exclusively capable of doing and less on work that needs automation.

Relentlessly hard working, zealous and punctilious, Gaur says he doesn’t have any ‘job stress’ because he has chosen his hobby as his profession. “I don’t need holidays because I am perpetually on holiday, even while at work,” he chuckles. And then there are always sci-fi movies. Clearly, the grandeur and comfort of a Google job in a scenic overseas location is a far cry from dusty Ahmedabad, but tinkering with toys of all sizes and complexities seems to have helped Gaur get his just desserts rather early in life.

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