smart technology

IITs are on a quest to develop self-driving cars for India’s crazy roads

All the hardware and technology will need some serious adaptation for India’s extraordinary streets.

At the moment, SeDriCa isn’t much of a looker: it resembles a couple of stacked cardboard boxes precariously balanced atop three wheels. It’s not much of a mover either. Mounted with a beacon light, the vehicle ungracefully rambles along narrow, marked routes, usually on playgrounds, at a reluctant pace.

But Ankit Sharma and Rishabh Choudhary, final year students at the Indian Institute of Technology -Bombay, are convinced that the ungainly three-wheeler can provide the foundation for developing a driverless car for Indian streets. The duo leads the SeDriCa (short for self-driving car) project at the institute’s Unmesh Mashruwala Innovation Cell, where successive batches of students from multiple engineering streams have been working to develop an autonomous car since 2011.

They aren’t the only ones. For over a decade, IIT-Kharagpur, too, has been working to develop autonomous ground vehicles; similar research is underway in IIT-Kanpur. At India’s most elite engineering schools, the dream of driverless cars on Indian roads is turning into something of an obsession.

But for all their research into autonomous vehicles, all three IITs are working separately with scarcely any collaboration between the teams. With years of experience on the subject, it might make sense for these institutions to work together.

Nevertheless, it’s a useful fixation to have at a time when global carmakers and tech giants are throwing money and resources to develop self-driving cars. But all that hardware and technology will need some serious adaptation to be able to work on India’s extraordinary streets, where bovines, cars, pedestrians, and other assorted jalopies compete for space.

Made in India

In 2016, SeDriCa ranked fourth out of 36 teams from across the world at the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition, an annual student contest held at Oakland University. The competition involves avoiding obstacles, navigating a track while staying between the white lanes, and reaching specific global positioning system points.

Play

SeDriCa, which measures two feet by three feet, has an on-board GPS device, an inertial measurement unit that calculates motion and wheel encoders that track movement. A vision system on the vehicle is used to detect the lanes and LiDAR, a remote sensing technology that uses laser light, is employed to steer clear of static obstacles. All the data from these devices is collected and analysed by a set of algorithms to guide the vehicle along the required route.

The IIT-Bombay team is now working to adapt this technology for a small car for the Driverless Car Challenge of the Rise Prize, an innovation contest under the aegis of the Mahindra Group. Thirty one shortlisted teams must build a driverless car for Indian conditions, which will first be tested in a controlled environment, like a university campus, and then on city streets.

Sharma, Choudhary, and the rest of the team are still waiting to get their hands on the Mahindra E20, a four-door electric car that they’ll try and transform into a self-driving vehicle. After their experience with SeDriCa, they’re sure of pulling it off with around six months of testing.

Already, they are trying out some of the technology on the SeDriCa, which they’ll need to fine-tune on the E20. “The algorithms that we have implemented, they are working,” explained Choudhary, 21, a chemical engineering student who is the team lead on the Rise Prize. “For example, our positioning system is working on the roads. Even when the road is covered by trees, we have good positioning.”

“We are working on other sensors also,” he added. “We have completed pedestrian detection, so it can detect pedestrians and some types of vehicles.” Much more remains to be done, including developing and testing the vehicle’s ability to recognise and deal with traffic lights, road signs, and speed breakers.

From mine rescue to the road

The challenges aren’t much different for the Autonomous Ground Vehicle Research Group at IIT-Kharagpur, also competing for the Rise Prize. The Autonomous Ground Vehicle traces its roots to research that began at the institute around 2004. “There was a need for coming up with an autonomous rescue robot for mining applications,” recalled Debashish Chakravarty, an associate professor at the IIT’s mining engineering department, who heads the project.

By 2008, a group of PhD students from the computer science department got to work on building a driverless car, which then led to an IIT-Kharagpur team participating in the 2012 Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition. “We actually have a test purpose robot, which was built from scratch and is used on a small portion of the campus road to run autonomously,” said Chakravarty. “And now, we are trying to fine-tune the technology for Indian roads.”

In 2013, a group of three students from IIT-Kharagpur spun off a company, Auro Robotics, to build autonomous shuttles for transportation within campuses, such as universities and corporate parks. Auro, backed by Y Combinator, a prominent Silicon Valley accelerator-turned-seed fund, is already testing driverless shuttles at California’s Santa Clara University. Last year, it raised $2 million to roll out autonomous shuttles across US universities.

Meanwhile, at IIT-Kanpur, Gaurav Pandey, an assistant professor in the electrical engineering department, is also on the bandwagon. A former research scientist at Ford’s automated driving group based in Dearborn, Michigan, Pandey is currently working on developing autonomous vehicle technology for a foreign carmaker. He declined to provide details of the project, which is backed by IIT-Kanpur, due to confidentiality considerations.

“I am mostly looking at the problem from the western perspective right now, so I haven’t really thought about how it will be translated to an Indian condition,” Pandey explained. “But we have started to look at it.”

“We have another project where we have outfitted a car with multiple sensors that are being used by these autonomous cars and we have started collecting data from outside the IIT-Kanpur campus, and within the campus also,” he added. Pandey and his team are collecting camera and LiDAR data from these trips to understand how traffic in Indian conditions differs from roads in the US and elsewhere.

After all, the driverless technology that works in California will scarcely suffice for Kanpur’s Chaman Ganj.

This article first appeared on Quartz.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.