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Meet the Chennai boys building UGVs for the Indian Army

Chennai-based start-up Torus Robotics is manufacturing Unmanned Ground Vehicles to help ferry heavy loads for the Indian Army

April 14, 2021 01:12 pm | Updated 09:06 pm IST - Chennai

The Torus Robotics team with their UGV prototype

The Torus Robotics team with their UGV prototype

“You think of ‘unmanned’, and you think of drones, in the sky,” says 25-year-old Vibhakar Senthil. In Ambattur — widely regarded as the Detroit of India — his start-up Torus Robotics is set to change that, by making Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) for the Indian Army.

At the Aero India 2021 in Bengaluru, attended by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Torus Robotics signed an MOU with the Government, on the joint development of UGVs for the armed forces with BEML Limited.

“With BEML, we are now developing a high-altitude Logistics UGV with 750 kilograms payload. It will be an all-terrain vehicle to supply to and from bases [without the need of human presence] in bad weather conditions, for the Northern Command,” says Vibhakar.

At university in SRM, Kattankulathur, Chennai, Vibhakar, with his classmates, M Vignesh and K Abbhi Vignesh, spent time researching the robotics industry in India. A combination of patriotism — Vibhakar says he had hoped to join the Indian Army once — and passion for robotics, led them to focus on the defence sector.

“We researched the issues our jawans faced during border patrol because of infiltration, heavy burden, high altitudes and lack of oxygen, and the corresponding mental health issues. We were wondering if robotics could solve that issue of logistics,” says Vibhakar, adding, “The idea is not to replace jawans , but to aid them.”

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh at the Aero India 2021 in Bengaluru, with Torus Robotics

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh at the Aero India 2021 in Bengaluru, with Torus Robotics

When Torus Robotics was officially established in 2019, it was with the help of someone who knew the in and out of the armed forces. Lieutenant General CA Krishnan (retired) mentored the three on the needs of the sector. “He was in the Army Design Bureau [that helps research organisations and start-ups, address the unique issues faced by front-line forces in the Indian Arm], and we will be officially incorporating him in the company in June,” Vibhakar adds.

Why the focus on UGVs

UGVs in the defence sector are mainly used for surveillance (border patrol), reconnaissance (scouting and collecting information), combat (like tanks, but smaller), and logistics (ferrying supplies from one base to another, where regular vehicles have trouble going) — the fourth is currently their highest priority. “You can also adapt UGVs for supplementary activities by making them amphibious or nocturnal and so on,” says Vibhakar.

In July 2019, Torus Robotics finished its first project for Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), manufacturing and assembling a UGV. It has been put to use by the Indian Army, which had further tests and research done on it. The product is under a two-year warranty.

Working on all-terrain UGVs, they understood that whatever motors and controllers are needed in making them, are imported from China and other countries. This would be an issue if they wanted to manufacture more for the Indian Army, which is why they decided to fabricate their own.

“We also won the Low Carbon innovation grant from the United Nations last year to develop solar-powered low-cost and high-efficiency motors (that use 30% of the energy required by regular induction motors), which could finance water supply in drought-hit areas,” says Vibhakar.

After their first project for DRDO, the trio had shifted base to Pune, as its manufacturing and supply was being done out of a factory in Turbhe. However, they soon moved back to Chennai — for the convenience of Ambattur.

“We came back because we missed our great network with supply vendors in Chennai. Manufacturing electric vehicles is much easier in Chennai, here you can find products of defence grade quality at relatively cheap rates,” he says.

Torus is looking forward to setting up a small facility in Ambattur, where UGV research and the small-scale production of motors takes place alongside. “This is our comfort zone,” he says.

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