Two teams from The Indian Public School make it to the National and the International levels of a robot-building competition. Esther Elias meets the young scientists

If school labs were inhabited by mad scientists, The Indian Public School’s robotics workroom is what they would look like. Spare parts lie around, work manuals pile high, the walls are covered with flow charts and labelled diagrams, and, in the middle of it all, a bunch of kids huddle over a robot they’ve created, calculating its efficiency to overcome preset hurdles.

The workroom has been a second home of sorts to two teams that made it to the National level of The First Lego League (FLL) and the First Tech Challenge (FTC) — competitions for school students in varying branches of robotics, conducted internationally by First, a not-for-profit U.S. organisation. On February 9, the FTC team came second at the Nationals in Noida and will represent India at the Europe Championship Festival in Germany.

An early start

The students’ foundations in robotics were laid from Class IV where it was a compulsory subject at the school’s monthly workshop. Later, in 2010, Professor Jawaharlal Mariappan from California State Polytechnic University conducted a three-day camp on robotics’ basics, and also informed them of the FLL competitions in India. “In 2012, a group of us decided to enter the competition and the school supported us,” says class IX student Mani Vannan. Simultaneously, a younger group enrolled for FTC, which was conducted in India for the first time this academic year. Then on, there was no looking back. “During the last two months, we spent most evenings after school in this room working toward the competition. All weekends and official holidays were here too,” says Ashwin A. Kumar.

FLL requires students to prepare two projects. First, the design of a product that could answer this year’s competition theme, ‘Senior Solutions’ (gadgets to aid the elderly), and second, manufacture an automated robot that could manoeuvre a game course involving several obstacles (such as inclines) as well as perform tasks such as arranging tile quilts.

“We researched geriatric problems that could be addressed by robots and discovered that many seniors pass away from not having taken their vital pills on time,” says Nishanth. After much brainstorming, the team designed a palm-sized automated pill dispenser that would dispense tablets according to prescription into a retractable cup. “Additionally, the dispenser has a talking alarm and flashing lights that signal medication time,” says Rudra Narasiman. The product is being manufactured by Crisp in Coimbatore and is receiving design feedback from patients at GKNM Hospital’s geriatric wing.

While one half of the FLL team worked on the product design, the other half worked on the automated robot. The FTC team too had to design a joystick-operated robot that could lift pegs off hooks and place them on three levels of a stand during a timed game called ‘Ring it up’.

“The process of designing the robot is a long-drawn out one, especially because once it’s been put together, dismantling it to make changes is very difficult,” says Athmika S., captain of the FTC team. Their robot features a scissor lift, whose parts were manufactured in Coimbatore, mounted on a base provided by the competition organisers, and put together from scratch by the students.

Both teams began with drawings of possible designs that were modified, discarded, updated and finally approved. Every step of the process is documented in their engineering notebooks. “Every time we met, one of us would write down the minutes — from the ideas discussed to the physical work done. This helped us trace the robot’s evolution as well as go back to earlier designs if we had to,” says Roshini Thangavel. Both team’s notebooks were particularly appreciated by First’s Challenge Advisory Team at the Regionals in Chennai. The FLL team came second at the Regionals and was also awarded the ‘Best Design’ prize for their robot here.

While the students were guided by their school robotics teachers Jayashree (FLL coach) and Saranya N. Rao (FTC coach), the ground work and implementation was their own. “Each team member has designated roles such as building and design, programming, operating, quality check, marketing and publicity,” says Yashvanthraa Mohanraj. While the teams have received sponsorships at the Regional and National levels, they hope for help at the Internationals. Concludes Saranya, “Representing India in Germany is a huge responsibility, as well as an honour. So, we hope to make the best of it!”