What we learned at the Sri Lanka Robotics Meetup

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Robots are interesting creatures. Across the world, robots are changing everything from how we build devices to how we communicate to how we kill each other. The world of robotics is in a constant state of innovation. So what about us in Sri Lanka? Are we doing anything regarding robotics? Here’s what we learned at the Sri Lanka Robotics Meetup, which took place at the Virtusa Auditorium.

The first speaker of the day was Prof. Rohan Munasinghe – Head of the Department of Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering at the University of Moratuwa. He began his presentation by making a bold statement that industrial robotics is what we need to focus on to make money. All other forms of robotics are just entertainment. He then began his presentation by sharing with us some highlights and the results of recent robotics competitions held at the University of Moratuwa. Prof. Rohan then introduced us to the concept of mobile robotics.

Prof. Rohan Munasinghe speaking at the Sri Lanka Robotics Meetup (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)
Prof. Rohan Munasinghe speaking at the Sri Lanka Robotics Meetup (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)

The concept of mobile robotics is very simple. Essentially it’s video conferencing taken to the next level. Instead of a fixed screen showing a person, you have a robot which the person on the other side can control, which has a screen attached that he/she can use to video conference with you. Prof. Rohan showed us an example of such a robot being used by a lecturer to teach his students while he was away from class. Such robots could include manipulators as well, which an operator could use to carry out complex tasks while not being at the actual site.

Prof. Rohan then introduced us to aerial robotics. Better known to everyone else as a drone, these form of robots are a common sight to all of us. We all know about the giant predators the US Air Force has that defines drones, but Prof. Rohan gave us a different example. He introduced us to the drones of Moratuwa, which we wrote about last year.

 

RAVAN in flight. Images courtesy of Prof. Rohan Munasinghe
RAVAN in flight. Images courtesy of Prof. Rohan Munasinghe

He then went onto say that, “if you can fly then you can dive.” This is how he introduced the underwater robotics projects the University of Moratuwa is working on. While the drones took almost 3 years of work, these underwater robots took only one year. This is because much of the expertise from building drones was transferable. However, water presents its own set of challenges such as the lack of GPS and poor internet connections.

Prof. Rohan concluded his presentation by returning to his original point. As he states, there is news, research papers and more about Sri Lankan robotics projects. However, the money is still not here. What we need to focus on he says, is to build commercial robots which we can either sell to foreign markets or make our existing processes here more efficient.

The next speaker was Eng. Nalin Karunasinghe – Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Moratuwa. His presentation was focused on introducing everyone to the concept of the Internet of Things better known as IoT. Now IoT is not a new concept. It’s something we were introduced to in detail almost 2 years ago. Nalin began his presentation by introducing the exact definition as to what exactly IoT means. In case you’re lost, it essentially means that everything from your fridge to toothbrush being connected to the Internet and sharing data.

He then proceeded to give a technical description of building IoT devices. During this section, he shared the audience how simple controllers such as the Arduino and Raspberry Pi can be used to build simple IoT devices. As for communication mediums, there was a huge graph he shared with us showing everything from 2G to 4G and everything in between. However, the hardware is the easy part. The hard part is that the software needs to be lightweight and will require new programming techniques.

Eng. Nalin Karunasinghe speaking at the Sri Lanka Robotics Meetup (Image credits: Mullenlowe/Virtusa)
Eng. Nalin Karunasinghe speaking at the Sri Lanka Robotics Meetup (Image credits: Mullenlowe/Virtusa)

Nalin then proceeded to share with us a few other challenges IoT poses. One such challenge is the practical challenges regarding security, data management, and network management. Another challenge is that the rapid pace of IoT innovation is creating conflicting protocols and standards. A solution for this which Nalin proposed is to have a standard gateway which acts as a translator between the many protocols and standards.

Nalin concluded his presentation by giving us a practical demo. This demo consisted of an IoT device controller. He showed the audience how this simple controller can be used to the controller a buzzer and whistle with a simple web interface. With the conclusion of Nalin’s presentation, it was now time for the panel discussion.

The panel discussion was moderated by Dr. Sanath Jayawardana – Senior Lecturer of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Moratuwa. The panel consisted of Prof. Rohan, Eng. Nalin, Anuradha Weeraman – Associate Director of Mobile Solutions & Digital Practice at VirtusaPolaris and Heshan Perera – Associate Technical Project Manager at Zone24x7.

(L-R): Prof. Rohan Munasinghe, Heshan Perera, Eng. Nalin Karunasinghe, Anuradha Weeraman (Image credits: Mullenlowe/Virtusa)
(L-R): Prof. Rohan Munasinghe, Heshan Perera, Eng. Nalin Karunasinghe, Anuradha Weeraman (Image credits: Mullenlowe/Virtusa)

This was arguably one of the lengthiest panel discussions we’ve seen to date at a meetup. This was a panel discussion that lasted three rounds. The first round was where the panelists introduced themselves and how they were introduced into robotics. The second was an in-depth technical session focused on different aspects of robotics. The third and final round were where the audience was able to ask their questions from the panel.

With the conclusion of the panel discussion, the robotics meetup came to an end. It’s clear that we in Sri Lanka know how to build working robots. Now what we need to do is make these robots commercially viable. Once we do, it’s likely that our IT industry will evolve and reach newer greater heights.

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