A team of seven robotics enthusiasts from Pune are prepping up to go to Spain for FIRST LEGO League – Open European Championships 2016. The teens take out time from their school and on weekends to design prototypes and sort out challenges, mentored by Chris Bastianpillai at Robominds.
A team of six boys and a girl from Pune are eagerly awaiting the day that they can fly to Spain for an international level robotics competition. The team, called HorcruXes, qualified for the FIRST LEGO League Open European Championship (FLL-OEC). It will be held in one of the Canary Islands of Spain from May 4 to May 7, 2016.
At these competitions, the children have to design and engineer Lego Mindstorms robots to complete a set of tasks, including a live robot run. They are judged on robots design, robot performance, project idea and teamwork. It is organised by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an international youth organisation based in the US.
Avani Malaviya, PuneKanish Thiagarajan, Piyush Kolhatkar, Deep Lalwani, Harsh Savergaokar, Siddharth Thiagarajan, and Aditya Potnis, came together three years ago, driven by their love for all things robotic.
They were introduced into the world of robotics and trained to participate in competitions by their coach, Chris Bastianpillai.
Chris and his wife Prakalpa founded Robominds in 2013, a Pune-based setup that provides a hands-on learning experience to children who want to learn robotics technology. When they see children with a high potential, they encourage them to participate in robotics competitions.
The duo, who have worked abroad, realised that Indian engineers are not as hands-on with their thinking and working as those abroad. Says Chris, “When we came back to Pune, Parakalpa’s hometown, we started Robominds to ensure that children had access more than just theory of science and engineering, that they were getting practical knowledge through hands-on training.”
Horcruxes is one of his very first batches. With his guidance and mentoring, the 12- to 16-year-old children were able to floor the judges and win competitions, from regional levels to the nationals.
The children, who study at different schools in Pune, spent massive amounts of time working on their robot project for each of these competitions.
They snatched hours from school days and on weekends, managing their schedules to make time for their passion. And indeed, it has paid off.
At the Regional Championships of FLL 2015, the team won the Champions Award for their robotic engineering. They grabbed the first place in technical design, robot performance and teamwork. Next, at the National FLL 2016, held in February, they were ranked in the top five positions, which is ultimately what got them into the Open European Championship.
FLL-OEC is a major championship, with over 300,000 children from over 80 countries participating.”The learning that they get out of this is phenomenal,” says Chris, adding that the exposure to different cultures and their working methods help the children to perfect their own.
The theme for the year is ‘Trash Trek’, in which the children work on solving problems of trash collection, sorting and reuse using robotics.
“The students have to build a robot and perform tasks in a limited time of two and a half minutes. This year’s theme on waste management involves activities on recycling, composting, sorting waste and more. Our team is focusing on the reduction of use of plastics.”
“Our focus is on building robots by trying to keep the costs down,” says Chris, “And this fundraising is also an important experience for the children to understand how to build economically viable robotics technology.”
The most challenging part of the competition for the children is to figure out how to build a robot that can perform a multiple number of tasks. The students go through 5 to 15 different prototype designs, analysing its pros and cons, and working out the details.
“Now that they’re back from the nationals, they are working on perfecting their robot for the international levels,” says Chris. They’re preparing for the dynamic playing field that is characteristic of international competitions abroad.
He explains, “Like in real-life engineering, there are a lot of variations that the children have to face. For instance, even changes in temperature, lighting can affect the robot’s performance. These are factors we cannot control, so on the day of the competition, the real test for the kids will be their ability to react quickly and fine tune the robot in dynamic situations.”
The only roadblock that they’ve hit so far is the funding for the trip. “We are trying to do a fundraiser, because these competitions turn out to be quite expensive for the parents,” Chris says, adding that he does not want to burden the children’s’ parents with the cost of flying to Spain and staying there for the competition. Even going to Delhi cost about Rs 30,000 per student for stay and airfare. “To go to Europe, it’s going to cost us about 1.2 lakhs per participant.”
According to Chris, funding is usually a major setback for students from developing countries to go to international competitions, as they don’t get enough recognition even from the government. Nevertheless, the Bastianpillais take the funding into their own hands, as much as possible. “We take the money we get from running Robominds and put it into sponsoring these competitions,” he says.
The team set up a donation through STEM Foundation, which also runs the FLL India competitions.
To contribute your bit to help the team participate at the international level competition, click here.