This year, the competition has been opened to many South Asian and Asean countries, and even Namibia and South Africa.
“e-Yantra has become more than a competition. We’re seeing it as a platform where young engineers across South Asia and Africa – and soon maybe Europe – can collaborate and solve local problems,” says Arya, who had conceptualised the programme from an embedded systems course he used to teach with his colleague Krithi Ramamritham.
It is the only competition in the world that is like a six-month long robotic MOOC (massive open online course). Students are first trained and then mentored to design and implement a solution in order to win an internship. The six-week internship at IIT Bombay is a coveted prize for participants.
For those from the last batch, the internship had to be done remotely, given the pandemic lockdowns. Some 133 students formed six groups that researched various topics – like China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Will AI take away jobs, Open source vs proprietary software. These were then presented online for lively discussions. The professor says this exercise helps develop leadership qualities in engineering students. “We want to expose them to all sorts of cool ideas, unrelated to engineering. The internship is one way to achieve that because the world does not want more technicians, it needs leaders having empathy and entrepreneurs willing to solve societal problems,” he says.
The e-Yantra programme comprises two key initiatives. First, it allots themes or problems to students based on their existing skills. It trains the students in the skills needed for that theme. These may be robotics and related skills such as machine learning, image processing, robot operating system (RoS), programming, and embedded systems. If they do well in this stage, they are admitted into the second stage where they solve a problem by building a machine. Here, robotic kits and accessories are provided.
The second part involves training to be an innovator. Students may also participate in the e-Yantra Innovation Challenge (eYIC), which teaches them to look for real-world problems and to solve them under the mentorship of experts. Students have built and demonstrated robots that can pick fruits, sort objects, drop seeds in agricultural fields, do surveys using drones.
This year’s theme in the e-YIC is disaster management. “We will have disaster management experts map out disasters. The students then get trained in tools suited to such problems. They will be mentored in building solutions. This is an area that sees very little investment in the country. When disaster hits, we incur billions of dollars’ worth of loss, which would be different if we were better prepared,” says Arya.
The biggest problem in India, he says, is that students are not given practical exposure. But he’s finding that engineers can build great solutions if they are provided mentorship and skills to do so. So, as part of the eLSI (e-Yantra Lab Setup Initiative) programme, over 385 robotics labs have been created and teachers in colleges all over India have been trained to offer support to interested students.