This feature is about Diwakar Vaish, one of India’s most innovative roboticists. At all of 24 years, Diwakar, born 23rd July 1992, is today a prolific inventor, lecturer and head of robotics & research at ‘A-SET Training and Research Institutes, which he founded in 2010. The developer of India’s first fully indigenous 3D printed humanoid robot ‘Manav’, the first Indian mind controlled robot, and the world’s first production-grade brain-controlled wheelchair, Diwakar is a whiz-kid who is also guest faculty at various IITs (at Roorkee, BHU, Kanpur, Kharagpur, Bombay, Hyderabad, Guwahati & Bhubaneswar), BITS (at Pilani & Goa), BIT Mesra, the NITs (at Warangal, Kurukshetra & Surat), at the IIITs (in Delhi & Jabalpur), and with VIT Vellore. His pathbreaking work has found recognition from India’s past presidents Dr A P J Abdul Kalam and Smt Pratibha Patil, and the UN has found it fit to confer him the “Best Innovative Researcher 2012” award. Rajeev Gupta of NRI Achievers caught up with him to create this profile for you …
Diwakar Vaish is what you would call a ‘prodigy’ – he was deeply into electronics and the intricacies of how things work as a chile, even in pimary school. When in high school, his passion about electronics was manifested in the projects he entered for inter-school competitions, which won him and his school many prizes. The school too encouraged him, presenting him with a laptop and paying for his internet connection – to enable him to do even better. Soon after school he built his first ‘dancing robot’ that brought him into the limelight, sort of. After initially contemplating to go to the US for his under-grad programme and then deciding not to, Vaish enrolled for a B.Tech programme at Delhi’s Sharda University. His old school, soon after, when he was still in college, extended an offer – could he come to hois alma mater to teach, enthuse, encourage and mentor students to pursue robotics? He took it up. And a lot more as well, as this profile will tell you as you read on. Mostly in his own words …
“You could call it an outcome of some ‘Out-of-the-box’ thinking that had crept into my mind maybe when I was in my 7th standard, maybe before. I do not remember all that precisely, it was in my childhood and I can’t give it any age. I had this keen fascination for electronic stuff for as long as I recall, from the time when I was just a small kid. I would open up things to find out how they worked. During one of my summer vacations, I got an idea to seriously and systemmatically start learning about electronics – I guess it was around the time when I was in my 5th standard. I came to this institute near my house, primarily because it was very accessible for me, and I started taking up classes – very soon my interest in electronics grew into reality. Gradually I learnt to make out how things actually work and what happens exactly inside electronic gear. By the time I was in my 9th I was a lot more aware of electronics, I had enough confidence to prepare electronics projects for inter-school competitions, of which I won several. My schooling, apropos, was from the Bal Bharti School near Ganga Ram Hospital.
“In appreciation of my enthusiasm, my school gave me a laptop and also paid for my internet – it was their way of enabling me to do even better. I did, and by the time I reached my 11th class, I had already tried out everything that were in the books, and knew what people across the world had done in electronics until then – a growing urge was taking shape in my mind, to use my skill-sets and do something as yet unexplored … I pondered on it, and once I had a workable idea in my mind, I confided in my dad – described my idea to him and set out the details of all the stuff for which I needed money. My dad, he did not even think about it, he just said ‘okay, go ahead and make it’.
“That was how after my 12th exams I programmed India’s first dancing robot – and that was pretty basic at that point of time. Then, things changed, I first wanted to go the US for further studies – felt in the US I would be able to expand my skills and knowledge of robotics. But I didn’t go – I chose to stay in India and do my research here itself. I joined Sharda University for a B-tech. It was there that I realised that one had to rely on oneself if you want to get ahead in a field like robotics. I found what I was studying those days was prepared some two plus years ago – so I learnt to use available resources to keep abreast with bleeding-edge developments in the world. In the meantime, one fine day I got an offer from my old school – to teach robotics. I took it up, and started teaching robotics – and was paid for it. That’s how I had got to earning money even in my late teens.”
“Soon I started getting calls from more schools for teaching. I gave it a thought and an idea came to my head – why not set up a team to teach electronics and robotics? This idea culminated in what you know today as ‘A-SET Training & Research Institute.’ This is where we prepare teams who spread out and teach robotics in different schools, colleges and institutes. And 2011 it was, when the first IIT reached out to us, it was Rourkee. They called up asking if I could teach their students. After few months IIT kharagpur, BHU, IITs Khanpur, Bombay and Guwahati also joined the ranks of institutes where I was doing guest lectures.”
“It was in 2014 when discussing robotics in real life that we at A-SET got a thought – ‘why isn’t it that we do not yet have robots around us to do tasks?’ The answer was simple – robots today were too costly. We decided to do something for the society and began working on it. Our output was one the cheapest and lightest robots in this category – ‘Manav.’ You will find that robots with similar features as our ‘Manav’ cost you somewhere between 15-20 Lakh rupees commercially – well, we managed to make ‘Manav’ at much lower costs.
“Manav will cost you a mere 1.5 to 2 Lakh rupees – 10% of what you’ll spend buying a similar one in, say, the US. Our aim was focussed making robots people can easily buy, that are easy to use, maintain and repair. Parts of these robots are all 3D printed. The largest part is replacable at a cost of merely 500 rupees – and it is completely biodegradable. If you own a 3D printer, all you have to do is to give a command and the part will be ready in 2-3 hours. This A-set robot of ours will be useful for colleges, research universities and research groups.”
Vaish and team took all of two months to design, fabricate, programme and test Manav, using parts that were all made in India. Manav’s outer frame is made of plastic, and it was 3D-printed by ‘Buildkart Retail,’ A-SET’s own 3D printing venture.
“Robotics is like a rocket science – one wrong command and you could jeopardise the whole mission. Keeping that in mind, our robot is so made that it simply will not take a wrong command. Take this motor for instance. It is expensive. Theoretically, technically, it can rotate 360 degrees. But physically it is unable to go beyond preprogrammed fixed movements. And this robot knows its physical limits. So if you give it a wrong command, it will do nothing except warn you about the wrong command.”
Next on Vaish’s and his A-SET team’s agenda was to design and create something for the paralytic patient, whose life is far more difficult than you can imagine. Not being able to move around as freely as we normal people do, a paralytic is practically bound to a wheelchair and dependent on someone to move it and take him places. Vaish’s A-SET team’s efforts resulted in a wheelchair that operated on brain-control technology. Talking about it, Vaish says: “Its like your wish is its command. All you need to do to control this wheelchair are your thoughts – proud to say this is the first time that something of this sort has been done in the world, and is beinbg produced commercially. We have built in a whole battery of checks and balances, because not everyone’s brain is alike. We had no choice in this matter, because if we wrote one generic programme, it might not work for everyone. So from our prior experience, we applied the concept of machine learning, through which we understand how the user’s brain functions, and then adapt to it automatically. Also, we needed to compensate for changes occuring to the state of mind throughout the day and under different circumstances. With this meant to be a consumer product and not just another lab research tool, it was our endeavour to make it absolutely flawless. This wheelchair of ours has temperature sensors, sound sensors and numerous others, to ensure that everything happens just the way it is desired.”
“Sensors work continuously to scan the area around, the surface over which it is moving. The wheelchair can automatically avoid obstacles, rough surfaces and even stairs, just to name a few. It is completely safe even in emergencies. The first reaction of human beings is to close their eyes in case of an emergency – the wheelchair, in such a situation, will come to a complete halt as soon as a person clenches his eyelids, and it will wait for a few seconds so the user can recover. Not only that, the wheelchair has a power switch inspired by fighter jets, so it never gets turned on accidentally.”
This A-SET wheelchair costs around 2 Lakh rupees at the moment, but Vaish and team expect the government to take notice of this invention and facilitate making it more affordable and easily available to patients across the country.
Vaish has built over 40 robots till date. These include football-playing robots, writing robots and shadow robots – a robotic arm that imitates a human’s action. Vaish and his team are also working on a wearable mind-sensor headset that can track a person’s attention span and concentration levels, can read brainwaves, and when synced with a robot can accordingly direct the robot to perform tasks without human intervention. He and his team at A-SET are also working on a smart home-automated solution that can sense human feelings and perform jobs without being told – like opening doors, turning the air conditioning on by sensing an increase in body temperature, switching the TV to a channel of choice, etc.
Vaish has for the past three years been working on a life-sized humanoid robot that should soon be available to research institutes in India and abroad. A robot that can work non-stop for 10-15 hours a day and can be programmed to perform tasks that may be hazardous for humans. “For example, a person could remotely guide the robot in real-time to carry out tasks at nuclear power plants, or a surgeon in the US could perform a procedure in real-time on a patient here in India using such a humanoid robot,” says Vaish.
When we jokingly asked him if these efforts of his at miniaturisation, brain-control, etc., that too with the imperative of low-costs built in, was aimed at thwarting competition, his spontaneous reply was a mere smile. Then he said: “… honestly speaking, we do not really care what the competition is doing, we are not even focused on any type of competition with others, or focusing on what other people doing. No, that’s not important for us. We are just trying to deliver what society needs.”
“Even there, there is no ulterior motive, no ultimate aim. Like for example, before making the robot – the robot was my ultimate aim. And once the robot was made, our ultimate aim changed – it was now to make it much better. These days we are working on building a prosthetic hand using mechatronics and robotics technologies. On that project our ultimate aim is to provide a solution to people who lack hands so that they can do some meaningful work. Apropos the prosthetic hand, we are planning to launch it this Diwali, and we expect monthly orders to the tune of 500 to 1000 units. As of now, the prosthetic hands will cost 15,000 rupees per hand, and it will very easily work for 5-10 years, and is also completely repairable. “
“End of the day, I would say my ultimate aim is to take robots to every home, to all those people who actually need it. And of course, to make robots more economical, durable and accessible for everyone in the society.” Here’s to hoping he succeeds in his endeavour.