March 15, 2016      

Although India’s robotics industry is minuscule when compared with those of the U.S. and Japan, many observers believe that it is only a matter of time before the nation — which already has a growing presence in the global information technology community — becomes a major player in robotics design and manufacturing.

India already has many of the basic elements in place to become a robotics industry force, including a strong educational system, established business and academic research facilities, and an increasingly entrepreneurial business community.

Over the past several years, the Indian robotics industry has pushed far beyond traditional business areas, such as manufacturing and production, to enter emerging domains including education, rehabilitation, and entertainment.

Over the same time span, the number of Indian robotics researchers and educators has grown from just a handful to several hundred skilled professionals working in industry, higher education, and energy organizations.

Indian researchers learn to collaborate

The Robotics Society of India is working to encourage interaction between robotics researchers in India and their counterparts worldwide. The organization also holds national-level conferences, publishes newsletters and journals, and collaborates on projects with other global robotics-oriented organizations, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).

Also working to advance Indian robotics is the Center for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR). One of India’s oldest robotics research organizations, CAIR was established in1986. As a laboratory located within the Indian defense ministry’s Defense Research & Development Organization (DRDO), CAIR initially focused on the areas of robotics, AI, and control systems.

In November 2000, CAIR assimilated R&D groups working in several other departments within DRDO. As a result, CAIR has become India’s leading laboratory for various areas in defense robotics, IT, and communications technologies. CAIR became an ISO 9001-certified lab in 2008.

The Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT Delhi) is one of 15 IITs established around the nation to serve as centers of excellence for training, research and development in science, engineering, and technology. Founded as the College of Engineering in 1961, ITT Delhi has grown significantly and now has the power to decide its own academic policy and research initiatives.

An exoskeleton at IIT Delhi's Autonomous Robotics Laboratory

An exoskeleton is tested at IIT Delhi’s Autonomous Robotics Lab.

IIT Delhi currently offers master’s and doctoral programs in mechatronics and robotics. Visiting students also have the opportunity to work on state-of-the art robotics and mechatronic research projects.

An interdisciplinary program in autonomous robotics covers the design and control of robotic systems for various applications.

The externally sponsored program includes about 10 faculty members, as well as numerous graduate students drawn from the school’s computer science and electrical and mechanical engineering departments.

ITT Delhi’s Autonomous Robotics Lab is a joint effort of the school’s mechanical, electrical, and computer science departments. The lab’s current focus is on virtual presence, and researchers have designed a wearable telepresence exoskeleton.

The project is addressing the engineering challenges, such as bandwidth limitations, that currently hamper the communication of visual and haptic sensory information to remote devices.

The lab is also working on telemanipulation technologies, looking to improve the process of remotely controlling a robot via a master device, such as a joystick or mouse.

The researchers are currently refining systems that control the scope of force and/or motion from human controller to robot, recognizing that remotely controlled robots are excellent candidates for work in hazardous or difficult-to-reach environments.

Control systems featuring visual and haptic feedback technologies, which make operators feel like they’re actually present at remote sites, are essential for successful real-world use.

In addition, ITT Delhi researchers are working on the control of wheeled mobile robots (WMRs), a highly challenging technology. They are developing sophisticated control algorithms to address the collective behavior of a large number of interacting agents with a common group objective. This could result in swarms of autonomous and human-controlled vehicles of all types and sizes.

Indian robotics firms step up

Hoping to ride the global robotics tidal wave to success are a growing number of startups targeting a wide range of markets. Gurgaon-based GreyOrange Pte. Ltd. specializes in robots that are designed to bring new levels of efficiency to logistics and distribution operations.

Founded in 2011, GreyOrange has grown from a two-man startup into a multinational expanding rapidly across the Asia-Pacific region, including Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan. The warehousing automation company now has more than 350 employees, of which more than 200 work in R&D.

The company’s flagship Butler system (above) is a sophisticated robotic material handling technology. The system consists of robots that travel around a warehouse like intelligent forklifts, moving shelves stacked with various products to a floor assistant, who then scans a bar code to confirm that the right items have been picked.

Butler can help a worker pick up to 500 items per hour in contrast to the 40 to 80 items per hour allowed by existing manual processes, the company claims.

The company’s other major product is Sorter, a system that automatically segregates items based on a predefined logic. Sorter is designed to be used by logistics and e-commerce companies to sort incoming shipments. Sorter can sort up to 7,200 packets per hour, the company says.

Headquartered in Mumbai, Gade Autonomous Systems Pvt. Ltd. is a startup specializing in advanced social and service robots. The company’s top offering is AdverTron, a marketing and advertising robot that’s designed to play music, talk to people, and interact with various types of smart devices.

AdverTron’s positioning technology allows the robot to know where it is and where it needs to go, as well as to move safely and smoothly around people and objects. The robot can also serve as a mobile information desk, a tour guide, a brand mascot, or entertainment for shops, shopping malls, trade fairs, exhibitions, museums, and various marketing projects.

Sastra Robotics India Pvt. Ltd. is a four-year-old startup in Kochi that creates and sells robots designed for a wide range of applications, including systems targeted at consumers, industrial organizations, and academic research labs.

Sastra’s products include Anette, a telepresence robot that offers autonomous navigation, real-time audio/video, and obstacle-avoidance technologies. The company also offers SR-6D-Hx, an arm with six degrees of freedom designed for small-scale manufacturing and research applications.

Sastra also makes the SR-SCARA-Pro, a lightweight selective compliance assembly robot arm, customized for the automated testing of human-machine interface (HMI) devices, such as touchscreens and control panels. The company claims that the SR-SCARA-Pro is the world’s fastest touch-screen testing robot, capable of reaching speeds up to 800 touches per minute.

Gridbots' SAUSR Alpha underwater service robot

Gridbots’ SAUSR Alpha robot is designed for underwater service.

Specializing in advanced industrial robotics, Gridbots Technologies Pvt. Ltd. develops a variety of systems designed to conduct inspection, cutting and welding operations in difficult to reach spaces. The company’s Aquafleet line features robots designed for rugged underwater operations.

Founded in 2007, the Ahmedabad-based company also produces tactical robots for battlefield and reconnaissance missions by defense forces and police organizations. Dinesh Gaur, Gridbots’ managing director, has over 40 years of experience in counterterrorism and insurgency operations, including a directorship in the intelligence bureau of Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

Hi-Tech Robotic Systemz Ltd. holds more than 15 patents covering a wide range of robotic technologies. Its industrial automation systems are targeted at increasing efficiency and productivity on the factory floor.

The Malleshwaram-based company’s defense division works on developing and marketing unmanned systems for military and public-service agencies.

Hi-Tech Robotic Systemz’s other interests include AI and control technologies. Managing director Anuj Kapuria holds a master’s degree in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). He later worked as a CMU researcher in various projects, including 3D object recognition, autonomous vehicles, terrain mapping, and facial recognition.

Hi-Tech Robotic Systemz is a part of the Hi-Tech Group, a $150 million conglomerate with more than two decades of experience in the Indian and international markets.

Challenges to commercial success

Indian robotics companies face the same obstacles that have long hampered startups in a wide range of tech and non-tech industries. A leading challenge is the large amount of paperwork involved in importing hardware components into India.

A lack of skilled talent in key design and engineering areas is also hindering Indian robotics growth. Other challenges include a limited investor base and a small domestic market for robotics in India.

Organizations such as the Robotics Society of India are working hard to solve these problems as well as to raise the profile of Indian robotics companies with the nation’s government, business, and financial leaders. The effectiveness of these efforts will play a major role in determining the long-term success of the Indian robotics industry.