7 Shades of Summer: Technology

Rise of the machine

Page 1 of 1
Floor sweepers, ‘dogs’ and humanoids are some of the robot services Indian homes can enjoy now
In the short story, Runaround, written by the grandmaster of science fiction, Isaac Asimov, by the year 2015, humans have learnt to mine the planet Mercury. And when the mining station shuts down, it is their advanced robots they turn to. These sophisticated anthropomorphic machines, marked by their will for self-preservation and their need to obey and protect humans, are the troubleshooters which can bear Mercury’s intolerable heat and fix the station.

As always, the comparison between the rich imagination of Asimov’s universe and the reality of the modern world is interesting. We are now only a few months away from 2015, and by all apparent appearances, the world of amazing robots Asimov envisaged is light- years away. But if we look around closely, we are not so far behind as one might think. Robots have in fact been rapidly entering our worlds of late. Even in India where the robotics industry is in a nascent stage, robots are no longer simple industrial machines shackled to factories and warehouses performing mundane tasks like packaging, lifting and loading. But they are increasingly entering our houses and offices, working beside us, and sometimes replacing us. They are flying as drones carrying cargo and conducting surveillance, they are zipping about on ground intelligently manoeuvring around obstructions while cleaning floors and windows, and as cute little intelligent humanoids and robot dogs, they are carrying out commands and responding to affection.

Every morning, a 51-year-old man in Coimbatore wakes up by 5.30 am and waits for the day’s newspaper to arrive at his doorstep. And when it does and as he starts reading it, he strains his ears to catch the sound of a robot making a complaint.

S Raghuraman, a divorcee who lives with his 82-year-old mother in a two- floor house that stretches to 3,200 square feet, owns a fleet of 15 Milagrow RedHawk, small disc-shaped robotic vacuum cleaners, each of which comes alive at the programmed time of 5.30 am and goes around cleaning the house and returning to its docking station after it has completed the task. These robots move on their own, without need of supervision or instruction, going around and underneath objects, collecting dust, as though they can see the rubbish and objects in front of them. At no point does Raghuraman have to intervene, except once a week when he has to remove the accumulated dust from its bin, or when a robot encounters a hurdle and beeps out a complaint.

“At that point,” he says, “I have to go around the house, into every bloody room with a robot, to find which of those goddamn ones is making the noise.”

Of the various consumer robots currently available in India, the most popular are the ones like RedHawk that clean floors. Milagrow, a Gurgaon-based firm that manufactures and sells different types of consumer robots, claims it sells at least 300 pieces of floor robots every month. Apart from RedHawk, which costs Rs 23,990, it sells another ten floor robots. These include the Milagrow CloudSniper, which not only cleans the house but also through an internet- enabled 24x7 video camera can be managed from a remote location by the owner to keep an eye on the house. It costs Rs 54,990. Milagrow also provides two types of WinBots, which are robots that attach themselves to windows, mirrors, and other glass surfaces and clean them on their own; a body massaging robot called Wheeme that can move around a pre-selected region of the body, providing various degrees of pressure, and a lawn mowing and a swimming cleaning robot.

Rajeev Karwal, who left his job at Reliance Digital, where he worked as president and CEO in 2007 to start Milagrow, because he believes robotics is a field which will experience tremendous growth in the coming years, says, “Technology is reaching that point where a new age of robots is emerging. It’s no longer just large and expensive industrial robots. The industry is gradually moving towards producing smaller and affordable robots that help humans, both at home and workplace.”

Milagrow had to work on the technology of floor robots, which have been available abroad for a few years, before introducing them here. Since houses tend to be more dusty in India, all floor robots have a one litre dustbin instead of the smaller bins abroad, the wheels are made stronger since Indian carpets tend to be thicker, and Karwal had to ensure that these robots could deal with long strands of hair, as most Indian women tend to have long hair.

Among the most advanced robots currently available within the country are Genibo, a robot dog, and Hovis Eco, a humanoid, both marketed by MetalMate, a Ludhiana-based company which manufactures and sells consumer and educational robots. Genibo, which is modeled to resemble a bull terrier, is about 200 mm tall and costs Rs 2 lakh. It can understand and obey around 100 voice commands such as “Sit” and “Do a headstand”, express emotions like happiness, sadness, anger and sleepiness, and react, through its sensors, to touch. Hovis Eco, available either in its one foot tall (Rs 80,000) or four feet tall (Rs 3.5 lakh) variants, acts autonomously, doing various stunts like exercising or dancing.

Two years ago, College of Engineering, Pune, purchased a Genibo for its students who are interested in robotics. Dr SS Ohol, associate professor of its department of mechanical engineering, says, “We had a number of robots, but we wanted to purchase something advanced, something that possesses artificial intelligence. Today, Genibo is extremely popular in college. Not only students of robotics use it to understand how it has been built, anytime anyone comes to college, be it visiting students or parents, they always want to see the ‘robot dog’.”

Apart from Genibo and Hovis Eco, MetalMate is also manufacturing a one foot tall humanoid, which it believes will be able to perform the same tasks as Hovis Eco, but will cost only around Rs 30,000. The firm also sells a number of robots involved with pet care like a pet feeder—a small robot which can store pet food for a week, making a part of it available to the pets only at specific times of the day. Navrisham Kaur, the marketing director of MetalMate says, “Apart from the advances in computing power and sensor technology, today’s robots possess advanced artificial intelligence (AI), which allows them to function more autonomously and to make decisions based on the situations encountered. You wouldn’t have seen this a few years ago.”

“Robots, unlike humans, will never arrive late or do a half-hearted job,” says Karwal. “And very soon, home robots will consign the human maid and vacuum cleaner to history.”

One of the most exciting fields in robotics currently is the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) drone. In Mumbai, a group of IIT former students have developed what they call ‘Netra’, a lightweight UAV for surveillance and reconnaissance operations. It is a small 1.5 kg drone that at a maximum speed of 30 km/hr can carry out surveillance over an area of 1.5 km from a height of 300 metres, for 30 minutes on a single battery charge. Even if it runs out of battery during an operation and all communication with it is lost, the drone can find its way back to the owner on its own. So far, they have mostly been used for paramilitary purposes. However, last year it was deployed in Uttarakhand to help the Army locate survivors and estimate damages in areas where the force could not reach, and an early version of it was used in the popular Bollywood film Three Idiots.

The likes of Amazon have unveiled plans for what it calls ‘Amazon Prime Air’, a delivery system that would enable online retailers to deliver packages to customers using unmanned aerial vehicles. However, these proposed fleets of package-delivering sky robots will take a while before take-off. The US Federal Aviation Administration currently only approves the use of drones by police and government agencies, although Amazon hopes that the US civilian air space for drones will be opened up by 2015.

In the case of Raghuraman, he believes that those who want to use robot technology in their homes need to make their house as robot-friendly as possible. Every morning he puts the mats in his house inside the bathroom after noticing that some of his RedHawks were encountering trouble going over them. He has also increased the height of some of his furniture pieces so that the robots can move easily under them to clean the floor. He is currently planning to get rid of the bed in his bedroom, since one of his robots is often unable to move around a wooden groove. “People don’t understand, this is the machine of the future. You need to respect it for it.”

Last year, when Coimbatore faced a 13-hour-long power cut, the battery of all his RedHawks ran out. His two sisters who also live in the city visited him and chided him for having bought such a large consignment of robots that did not seem to work. “They asked me, ‘Where are your robots? I don’t see even one.’ They ridiculed me,” he says. So he purchased solar panels and reconfigured the power points to ensure that all his robots now run on solar energy. Apart from his 15 RedHawks, he also purchased a robot for a nearby temple. However, the priests gave it away to Raghuraman’s friend since they apparently did not like the vibe the machine gave out.

His mother still detests the robots and prefers a domestic help. “I explained to her how we don’t need a help any more. But she is old and likes someone to talk to,” he explains. So Raghuraman programmes the robots to clean up before the maid arrives. “The maid doesn’t even get to know I get robots to clean the house, since I feel she might feel her job is under threat. So she cleans up the house all over again,” he says.

“And recently, the maid told me how clean the house is. How despite using a single bucket of water to mop the floors, the water never turns dirty,” he says. “What does she know of my robots?”


Thumb’s Up

What if you could answer your phones, control your music system, play console games or control the television set with just a flick of your thumb? What if you could control the air conditioning, your phone or music system in the car while driving, without once getting your hands off the steering wheel? Fin is one the most revolutionary wearable technologies, developed in Kochi, Kerala, that allows you to do just that. Fin is a ring like contraption, to be worn on the thumb, that transforms your palm into a gesture interface. With gentle finger taps or swipes, any connected Bluetooth device can be controlled through this contraption. You can also turn your hand into a numeric keypad of sorts, where you assign numbers to different sections of the fingers. So anytime you need to call, all you need to do is key in the number by tapping various sections of your fingers, and thereby making a call without touching the phone. The retail cost of this device is currently around Rs 7,100.

Fitness on Your Sleeve

There are a number of cell phone apps that help an individual monitor his health. A Bangalore-based company has taken this concept further with its GetActive device, which can be clipped on to any piece of clothing. This device tracks the physicial activity of the user through the day, checking how many calories he has burned, the distances he has walked, the number of hours he has slept etcetera. But it doesn’t end there. Because people often give up workouts out of boredom, this device allows a user to connect to a larger group of GetActive users by going online and putting up all the information gathered by the device on the cloud. This way the group can stay connected, compete and egg on each other. This device costs around Rs 3,000.

Smart Timekeepers

Did you reckon that cell phones, with their ability to keep time, were making watches obsolete? Perhaps not. India has recently seen the launch of a number of smartwatches. These are computerised wristwatches, which don’t just keep time, but can act like modern smartphones. You can run mobile apps on them, listen and watch audio and video files, take photos, access text messages, emails, calendar, Facebook and Twitter, and also, by connecting it to your cell phone via Bluetooth, use it to make and receive calls. The one launched by Sony, has a 1.6-inch screen with 220x176 resolution and costs around Rs 14,990. Samsung’s smartwatch, called the Galaxy Gear, comes with a 1.63-inch and 320x320 resolution, and costs Rs 15,290.

Curve Your Enthusiasm

Your TV sets have become flatter and thinner, and they gone from boxy devices in your living rooms to slick wall-mounts. Now they have also become curved. A few months ago, Samsung launched curved UHD (4K) TV sets in India. Meant to provide an immersive, IMAX- like experience, these wavy displays are being touted as the next generation of flat TV screens. According to Samsung, curved TV sets work better because they follow the natural curvature of the eye. Even cinema screens have a little curve to them. The UHD, or ultra high definition, at a resolution of 3840 x 2160 has four times the pixels of most full HD screens currently available. Samsung has launched a total of ten different curved TV models, varying from 40 inch models right up to 65 inches. The prices range between Rs 1.04 to Rs 4.49 lakh.