Robots To The Rescue
When the COVID 19 shockwave came to Nepal and resulted in the lockdown, the Robotics Association of Nepal (RAN) and its partner chapters across the country, like most of us, were figuring out how it could reposition and readjust. As businesses shut down, Bikash Gurung, President at RAN, began to focus on what resources he could utilize to assist the community via the technology ecosystem of the country.
The thought was simple. “If we neglect this situation, then the problem could grow exponentially.” As Gurung puts it, “We were thinking, how can we bring together a community effort? What can RAN contribute to help out in this pandemic?”
The latter is what made its way to RAN’s Facebook page, sparking multiple enthusiastic responses. Brainstorming sessions and an amalgamation of thoughts over this post resulted in a few thrust areas. RAN has been actively preparing since before the lockdown itself to extend any support they could provide. One such effort was the Drone Rapid Response Team (DRRT) Framework.
The DRRT Framework inked out collaboration with Nepal Police to monitor the movement of people during lockdown. Since contact-tracing would soon emerge as one of the more important identification mechanisms, this aerial monitoring system proved to be instrumental to the Police. As you read this, the DRRT framework has reached Kanchanpur, Udaypur, and other sensitive border areas that are points of migration and hotspots for an upsurge in infected cases.
With superb forethought, the RAN team made opportune use of the private sector by seeking help from the film and music industry professionals. Since the organization itself had only 15-20 drones on hand, they outsourced drones from these industries that use them to shoot cinematic photos and videography for the big screen. This effort was the beginning of a Public Private Partnership (PPP) model that could pave the way for future innovations.
Another innovation that emerged out of the nascent yet-rapidly-growing robotics platform were the basic yet functional robots that could deliver small payloads remotely. These robots are a direct result of the efforts that RAN has made over the years through Yantra competitions around the nation.
Where once functional robots fought it out in the ‘manual akhada’, now these prototypes were developed into ‘food and medicine carrying robots’ meant for isolation wards in hospitals. This was literally a ‘life-saving’ deal as it meant that successful prototypes reduced the risk for frontline medical personnel. Similar to how remote-controlled robots are utilized by bomb disposal units by the police or the military, these have been performing small deliveries and minimizing contact during this viral crisis.
According to Gurung, all of the above required multiple stakeholder groups and partners coming together to help with intellectual idea design, rapid prototyping, and faith in testing-and-deployment. “To map out partners, support groups, and facilitators of such ideas requires time and trust, that wasn’t built during this crisis. The slow but steady progress that RAN and its subsidiary initiatives had made over the last decade bore fruit,” Gurung adds, “We were able to demonstrate to decision-makers in the public sector the value and impact of such small yet powerful local innovations”.
Gurung is also a part of the High-Level Technology Innovation and Development Group which is one of the initiatives by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology to fast-track innovation in the country.
“One of the core objectives is for this group to identify areas that require rapid response in times of crisis – fast response becomes critical in saving lives”
It is imperative that solutions that are currently being developed as a response to the COVID crisis, be built into the long-term framework of the science and technology footprint of the country.
Another area that should be of major focus is the community-level response. This is the correct time, according to Gurung, to prepare the responder workforce of the country. When a major disaster like the earthquake of 2015, or the current crisis strikes, it is critical to have the mechanism and human resource ready.
And, this, to quote a famous saying, is to “sweat during peace, so that we bleed less during the war”. He believes that if provided the right skills, the early-response mechanism of the country can be taken to another level of planning and operational efficiency.
To achieve all of this is no easy feat and Gurung firmly reiterates the role of the government to form the umbrella necessary to jumpstart such work across the nation.
“The government and its tentacles can reach across the nation like no other organization. It has the power and the authority, and accompanying policy/structure to impact any corner of the country in the shortest time possible. The government machinery, if devoid of political in-fighting and combined with a national will to improve can be an unstoppable force of reckoning and growth.”
A firm believer in the role of apex bodies such as NAST for science and robotics, and NICT for the IT community in Nepal, Gurung believes that task forces built under such public sector entities can truly transform the innovation landscape of Nepal.
There is the traditional belief that Nepal is sandwiched between two manufacturing giants, China and India, and therefore can only play the role of a silent observer and adopter. But that can change. According to Gurung, the current crisis has shown that Nepal can innovate and has the capacity to innovate.
Independence from imports and grants can happen – it is only a matter of time before the independence can sink in and be institutionalized through investment in manufacturing, research and development, and growth in small and medium enterprises. He proudly mentions that the DRRT framework is not just a local mechanism but has the potential to be implemented globally. The food and medicine carrying robots have been successfully adopted by Young Innovators in Bhutan, he adds. “This shows that we can innovate globally relevant ideas and prototypes here. Nurtured and channeled properly, regional knowledge transfer is another area of growth for Nepali innovators and entrepreneurs.”
Gurung is optimistic about the possibilities that the future holds. “If seeing is believing, the COVID crisis has been a boon to the science and tech industry in that it has demonstrated the capacity for technological innovation and adoption.”
“The only barrier to leapfrogging in innovation for Nepal is the lack of understanding that still persists. I firmly believe that if we can come together not to decry the public establishment but to demonstrate with firmness of ideas and working prototypes of the capacity that we currently hold and can propel ourselves to, policymakers and the bureaucracy will fall in place.”
Radiating positivity and confidence in these trying times, Gurung says in conclusion, “If needed we can handhold understanding and capacity building among public servants and the government human resource chain. Once understanding and realization seeps in, the possibilities of growth for ourselves as a nation, are truly limitless”