By Suyog Satyal

An Editor for The Zerone 2020

Photos by: LOCUS Photography

“The more modular you can make your codes, the more versatile your program is bound to be. This is one of the reasons, ROS is so useful in powering the smallest robots to the largest ones used in industry that require path planning and stuff….” The instructor was reminding his pupils at the very beginning of the third day. It was raining pretty hard outside; especially that day out of the total 4 days of the ROS workshop. The sun had already called it a day; it was past four. But inside the room 303 of Computer and Electronics Department, cold didn’t seem to dare to interfere. The door for it was shut; that of the mind was left open. Lines of code were being typed vigorously. Simulations were running on some screens. The air seemed to be saturated with contagious fervor. The magic spell was cast by ROS, something Nepal has yet to learn a lot about.

The Founder and Managing Directior of FuturelabsNepal, Mr. Sanam Shakya, in action.

ROS, an abbreviation for Robot Operating System, is an open-source, robotics middleware that provides hardware-level control to communication between components and package management. It is something every engineer must know about, according to Mr. Sanam Shakya, the founder and managing director at FutureLab Nepal. If you were to come to Pulchowk Campus after 4 in the evening, any day between 6th and 9th January, 2020, you’d have found him fervently guiding the attendees of ROS Workshop, organized by LOCUS, on the basics of ROS. This workshop is the first of its kind, here in Nepal.

“ROS is something that is vital to making autonomous robots. And the sad part is that we, Nepalese, haven’t even heard about it. Our chief goal is to give students, who are into robot-making, a new paradigm to learn from”, says Sangam Man Buddhacharya, the Hardware Coordinator of LOCUS 2020 Committee. “Even though I have worked on robotics a lot, it was only a couple years back when I first learned about ROS. Since then, I have been trying to implement it to my models as much as possible. What we should all know is that a robot is not just a steel vessel with some motors inside it. It requires an environment to function, and that environment, is facilitated by the ROS.”

To make the event as productive and concise as possible, the workshop hosted a limited 30 students, chiefly final year students from Electronics and Communication Engineering. There were undergrad participants from Kathford, Khowpa, Pulchowk—some leading names among engineering institutions in Nepal—and even a couple of high school pupils from St. Xavier’s College, Maitighar. The organizing committee, it seems, were as selective about the syllabus as they were with the participants. Mr. Sanam Shakya, an IIT-graduate and educator, had carefully chosen what to teach in the span of 4 days to the people who don’t even have a basic idea about ROS. Upon being asked, he said, “ROS is not something you could learn in a matter of days. I had a hard time picking what would be the best for the attendees. We started from the basics of Linux on the first day and talked about package handling and installation of ROS. In the subsequent days, we visualized and simulated the robot-model we had created, using the laws of physics and today, on the day of conclusion, we are revising everything we had done in the past few days to finally, build a robot that would swing around in the span of 5 minutes.”

The Fast and The Furious: Robot Drift

The program was structured to start with an hour of theory, then a brief break supplemented by warm tea, and finally an insight into whatever was learnt in theory through an hour of practical session. Along with the tutor, two instructors, Mr. Bichar Dip Shrestha Gurung and Mr. Jashis Rajbhandari, were on standby, helping the budding minds to bloom. Also, the Hardware Coordinator himself saw to it that nothing would remain unchecked. During the span of four days, all kinds of problems were seen. From locating specific directories using Linux commands to using formulas of physics applicable in real-world-simulation; the students could be seen scratching their heads about all sorts of things, which were then addressed by the instructors and the tutor, if not by the friends near them. A friendly gesture was seen throughout the event. As such, the Hardware Coordinator of LOCUS 2020 believes, “The motive behind organizing this workshop is not to limit the teachings to just those 30 people. That was the chief reason why I had personally given preference to 4th year students to participate in this. Seniors can always pass on this knowledge to juniors and so, the cycle will continue. We are happy and proud to have initiated this loop of something new and important at the college level.”

Instructors to the rescue!

“I believe the scope of robotics in Nepal is shining bright. I hope people will understand the beauty of robotics and its complexity in coming days, creating more autonomous robots. Our minds are as brilliant as that of Japanese or Russians working in this field, if not more so”, Mr. Sanam Shakya expresses optimism about the future of education and technology in Nepal. Their organization, FutureLab Nepal, is working towards teaching robotics and mathematics in a more practical and productive way to students in school, especially the ones dedicated to engineering. Currently, they are working with open source libraries to digitize the database systems of health posts; a remarkable effort.

"Wow, this is so fun." Meanwhile, “Why did I sign up for this?”

This workshop has added a certain charm to the list of LOCUS pre-events this year, as it was something never organized before. The actual event of LOCUS 2020, that is the main exhibition, will be of 3 days, from 31stJanuary to 2nd February. “LOCUS is the most anticipated tech event of the country and this year, we plan on doing more things that had never been done before”, Sangam Man Buddhacharya says, when asked about how excited he was about the upcoming LOCUS, “The pre-events have not finished yet; we have much more to offer. And we expect the utmost participation of my colleagues and fellow engineers-in-the-making to make this festival of technology bigger than ever.”

Everyone’s screen has the same visual—a robot model. Some of the students have started to type in some formulae. On pressing 'Enter', the model revolves round and round. A marvel. A milestone that had been reached. The faces light up, in contrast to the gloomy day. The sense of satisfaction can be traced in the air of the room. Finally, simulation of a robot is no longer a fantasy…

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