SEPTEMBER 2012: Gridbots is a technology and innovation company, based out of Ahmedabad and working in the field of robotics – artificial intelligence and machine vision. Founded in 2007, Gridbots envisions a design house scenario where innovating out-of-the-box designs becomes the norm rather than the exception. Apart from working in the high-end technology, the company is also trying to propagate robotics amongst young minds and making them understand this high-end technology in a simple manner. To cater to this purpose – Gridbots has a dedicated division called Edubotix Innovation which serves to the needs of research and educational robotics.
Vijaita Khandelwal, CEO, Gridbots Technologies, spoke to Ashwin Gopinath of EFY about her vision for the design house scenario in India.
Q. Could you tell our readers a bit about Gridbots?
A. Gridbots is a technology innovation company. It basically means that we work with the latest technology and believe in innovation being the only way forward. Started in 2007 by Pulkit Gaur (also director of Gridbots), the focus of the company was very clear from the onset–develop in the field of defense robotics and nuclear robotics. We have the singular office at Ahmedabad and we handle all the work from this office (as of now). Gridbots started off by converting the existing technology into real world products. That course of action took some time to mature after which clients were approached. We demonstrated the working technology to them and then started converting them into products customised for our customer’s needs.
Q. So would it be fair to say that your Research Wing is your main centre of attention?
A. That goes without saying. You could say that our capability of indigenous research is the defining feature/USP at Gridbots. The technology that we have developed on our products and the ones we are expecting to roll out soon are all based on research from the ground up. From day one, focus has been not only to innovate but innovate smartly. We want to create technology that can be used on products. This need to innovate is without doubt one of the key differentiators, which sets us apart from the competition in the market. Consequently, we invest heavily in our R&D team to stay ahead of the competition.
Q. Considering your portfolio and the single office, is your facility well-equipped enough to handle all operations in-house?
A. Yes, it almost is. The initial process is not limited to the mechanical design, the machine design, the electronics, touchscreen and other user interfaces, the chip design and the programming is all done on our premises. Any aspect of technology that is used in our sphere is done by us. But, large scale production and fabrication is something that (as of now) we outsource to local vendors.
Q. Since yours is a very dynamic field with lots of possibilities, I was wondering if you have any evolutionary offerings in the pipeline that you would like to share with us?
A. We have a separate sector within Gridbots where we have developed a Robot which can perform underground excavation upon being controlled by a remote controlled operator. They can also move on every kind of terrain. We are also India’s first commercial Underwater-Robot manufacturing company. Recently, we also completed fabrication for the prototype of an unmanned aerial vector robots. So basically, Gridbots has robots which can negotiate tough terrain, underwater operations and can fly.
Q. Are your products for “Indian Eyes Only”?
A. Currently, we are focusing solely on the Indian Market. Most of our products are made/customised for the government sector. The Indian Government is the largest client we have. Additionally, we also supply products for various organisations both in the public and private sctor.
Q. Could you name some of the products you have for your verticals?
A. Well, we have an unmanned robot named ‘Ground Zero’. It can take payloads up to 200kgs, operate in range of -20 degree C to +80 degree C. In addition, it is also fireproof. We can also mount guns on it. This allows it to be sent into navigate dangerous territories which can either be difficult to navigate or could be inhospitable. For navigation purposes, there’s a camera mounted on it. So the video feed is sent to a remote operator who can control the robot effectively. It has 2 types of cameras on it. A robotic manipulator mounted on it helps motor functions (like an arm) to de-activate mines and remove them. And since the robot is very light, it can even be worn as a backpack and carried to the site of deployment.
Q. How does ‘Ground Zero’ deactivate mines?
A. Well, as of now, the operator using the robot uses remote control to operate the servo-robotic arm to remove the casing and subsequently go on about deactivating the mine. The great thing in this case is that even if there’s a blast, the robot won’t be affected as it’s got a sturdy rugged design.
Q. Are there any specific demands vis-a-vis robot design and functionality being put forward by your clients or some trends which you expect to dominate this field ?
A. One of the more common requirements we get in the robot specifications are for robots which are mobile and a little intelligent(having some level of Artificial Intelligence). A trend which has been picked up from the Western Markets is for the Robots to be modular. Modularity refers to a Robot’s capability to be able to be very flexible. For example, the same robot should be able to navigate through rough terrain and when a gun is mounted on it; be able fire at someone, fix a robotic manipulator, then the robot must be able to integrate that into its function (should de-activate mines and perform other motor functions). This is what most organisations are asking for now-a-days. So while designing our Robots we keep this aspect in mind.
Q. What about R&D centres and collaborations with foreign R&D teams?
A. Currently, Ahmedabad is our only centre. We have had a great work environment here and as of now, we don’t see a reason to expand our offices to other lands. As for collaborations, I don’t think it’s either required nor is it something we foresee (at least in the near future).
Q. Are your production facilities located in Ahmedabad too?
A. We have small vendors right here in Ahmedabad to whom we outsource the making of large orders or particularly skilled operations. For smaller orders, we have a manufacturing facility on-site.
Q. What about testing/troubleshooting/debugging these robots?
A. We have a testing/debugging facility on-site too. After design at our facility, we send over the list of specifications to the individual vendors. The vendors manufacture the parts according to the specs we hand them and after they fabricate it. We assemble them, make the final product and proceed to test them extensively at our facility.
Q. What are your views on R&D in the country?
A. In most of the countries with an active R&D community, the focus is still to kind of reinvent the wheel. Nothing new is coming up. But, at Gridbots, our solutions are very fresh. We encourage out-of-box solutions. I think design engineers should not focus too much on optimisation, they should focus on inspecting solutions in terms of design and solving using a very different angle of perception. Competition is increasing day by day. The edge in this day and age is out of the box thinking, that’s how design engineers should think.
Q. Expansion in India?
A. We are having short-term plans to increase our presence in India. We are in talks with some domestic companies with whom we plan to collaborate on certain key aspects. They are putting up facilities and setting up a robot manufacturing setup where robots will be manufactured on a larger scale since industrial robotics is becoming bigger now.
Q. Since you are a relatively small company (with regards to ‘size’ and ‘reach’), what kind of marketing strategies do you employ to ensure maximum visibility for Gridbots?
A. We organise live product demonstrations for our clients. We demonstrate specific capability of our products and once they are convinced, we ask for their feedback and then customise it again to make it as per their requirements. Our director is a TED fellow and he goes to various places to deliver lectures, thereby increasing our visibility and reach. Plus, our strong work ethic ensures a good word of mouth going about and that’s better than anything we might do.
Q. So, moving on to your recruitment policy, what group of freshers are you looking for?
A. I, personally have no stringent, set-in-stone rules about recruitment. I don’t care if you have no experience. I don’t care if you were the best in your class from 10th to 12th or you graduated top of your class from IIT. We hire students from all spheres. We have B.Com students, math graduates, 12th pass, 10th fail. If he is coming for a technical job like the one at Gridbots, he should only satisfy our requirements, everything else is negotiable.
Q. That’s the first time I’m hearing something so fresh. I’m curious as to what those requirements are?
A. He should have the grasp of the basic concepts. He should always want to learn something new (at Gridbots, there’s always a chance for that). He should be proactive, willing to take responsibility on his/her shoulders. Lastly, he should be able to work in a team, take orders and put the team above all.
Q. Your Edubotics initiative has found a lot of takers. Could you tell us more about it?
A. Edubotics is us reaching out to colleges and schools in order to tap fresh talent right from the grassroot level. We establish robotics programs in institutions. Then we put up our products and we train students on how to use them. Thus, in a way, I need not have to train them again. In this way, we won’t have the problem of people and organisations who buy our products ever facing the problem of not having enough trained engineers to assist them troubleshoot a particular problem. We invest a lot of resources into Edubotics, but since we are kinda pre-training them before we induct them, we look at it as an investment. Indian industries are not that great when it comes to innovation unlike Gridbots. We encourage them to think free and challenge every practice. We believe that only when we question something, do we learn something new.