There is an incessant flow of ideas — from an accident prevention system to a Robot hand to a four-wheeled helicopter — all taking shape here. Enter the Centre for Innovation at IIT-M…

If creativity involves rearranging what we know in order to find out what we do not, innovation is giving it a shape and a name. Not only is the Centre for Innovation (CFI) at IIT- Madras meant to be a student-run lab, it is also being set up by a student team, guided by the faculty and alumni.

Amidst interiors that are painted in informal shades of cream and white, bits of paper, copper wires, parts of circuits, ICs, half-complete aero models and diagrams are strewn around while students work relentlessly on projects.

“The juniors are the most enthusiastic. All they have to do is come up with an idea. A group of six seniors guide them, present it to the mentor, and get it granted by the dean,” says V.G. Idichandy, former deputy director, IIT- Madras, who has been closely associated with CFI.

The centre, besides a mess and many other facilities, is funded by the alumni. “There is everything available here — all the material one would need for a project. The whole idea is to provide students with everything they need so that they do not have to run around,” he says.

It started with a modest hobby club in the basement a few years ago, and the idea took on a life of its own, inspiring teachers and students. Now, there are various groups including the aero-modelling, auto club and the robo club that have students doing projects every year.

“And not every project succeeds. We work on them, sometime leave them half-way to get back later. Not everything we do here is sophisticated,” says Vivek Sarda, a student, speaking about the robot hand he made a few years ago that could lift objects.

The students just have to walk in there and start work on their projects after the idea is accepted. Some spend entire nights here, welding, designing, cutting, sawing — sleeping in between intervals. A mezzanine corner provides the platform and stove to make coffee whenever needed.

“The idea could be anything. For example, the application that allows entry to the lab requires you to call the machine which then sends you a secret code needed for verification. That was also developed by us,” says Vivek. “Also, a model of the quadrator, the four-wheeled helicopter with a camera of Three Idiots movie fame. That was developed here three weeks ago,” says N. Varun, one of the centre's core administrators.

The most important part of the innovation process is free thinking and CFI aims precisely that. It has a fabrication shop and an electronic / electrical lab which together meet most project needs. Large empty spaces serve to clear up mental clutter, inviting more innovations, beside which is the gallery showcasing successful projects.

There is underwater Robo-fish and other experiments with robotics, many preparing to hit international competitions on robot making. Also interesting is a series of socially relevant projects.

The accident prevention system, for instance takes inputs from GPS, older data, log books and analyses them, while the techmet, is a helmet that sends signals to nearby hospitals for ambulances, in case of an accident.

“Over the last few months, the focus is on creating projects that have a strong utility value,” says Siddharth Thakur, who coordinates with the project-makers here. Patents and intellectual property rights are regular concerns, but Prof. Idichandy advises them not to excessively worry about them. “It is the process of making it, learning from it that counts. We can always sort out ways to preserve originality, but students should not restrict their creativity with thoughts of patents from the beginning.”

Other projects, funded by research organisations including DRDO, have also taken shape here. The All-Terrain Bot, a military project entirely designed by students can move on all platforms, including pebbles and mountains.

“And it is not manually driven. There is also a lot of emphasis on its design because the weight has to be spread across,” says R. Karthik, explaining why it resembles a military tank. A light drawing Bot that moves in all directions to create dual images and reduce the complexity of photography is also one of acclaimed creations.

“Students of all disciplines work together here. More than anything, it is the incessant flow of ideas here that is inspiring,” says Siddharth, as he stands outside the centre that, many would call the heart of IIT- Madras.

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Vasudha VenugopalJune 28, 2012