‘Guys, Guys, Guys! Check this out.’ KC stormed into my room with his fervent boots on. Ketan was famed as KC in the entire hostel.
Even before I could inquire anything, he got the keywords rolling for us.
‘IIT Bombay, Techfest, the Survivor. Let’s do it!’
‘Survivor?’ Gopal, aka Gopoo, asked before I attempted to join the dots.
‘What’s that?’ a half-asleep Akhil sat right up sensing KC’s excitement.
‘It’s an international robotic competition at IIT Bombay’s Techfest this year. I think we should participate.’
With his classic hand gestures and animated energy, KC continued to reveal, ‘The task is to construct a robot that would start on the referee’s whistle by climbing a fairly steep slope to reach one-meter high platform. It would run and fall from the platform on a rug-covered floor, of course the farther it falls, the more points it’ll get. At the end of the rug section, there would be a revolving wooden gate pivoted at the center along the line bisecting parallel sections of both the contestants. When one robot pushes the gate to enter the next task region, the gate would open inward in the opponent’s section blocking him from going through the gate. So logically, at one time only one robot could pass through the gate; therefore, the faster, the better. The other side of the gate would have wooden flooring where nine four-inch wooden cubes will be waiting for the robot to place them at their designated marked areas. Each correctly placed cube will give certain points.’ KC paused to breathe; and continued.
‘Till this point, the robot needs to be handled through a wireless remote controller by an operator, one of us. Then, the operator would need to hand over the remote controller to the referee and turn on the autonomous mechanism on the robot for the line following task. The robot will need to follow a white line and displace tennis balls sited along the way and stop at the end on a white stop line; automatically. Each displaced ball, ten points. Points determine the winners. The robot needs to survive the fall, protecting the line following sensors, batteries and the circuits to perform the next tasks; hence, The Survivor.’
For me, at the moment, KC was The Survivor after running us through the whole format just in a couple of breaths.
‘So you are saying, we need to build a robot; powerful enough to climb a steep slope and run through jagged terrain, sturdy enough to survive a fall, petite enough to pass through a small gate, heavy enough to move the cubes and smart enough to navigate automatically?’ Gopoo recapped. KC nodded.
We looked at each other, our eyes shone with the equal illumination as KC’s.
‘Let’s do it!’ we said in one voice and sets of hi-fives followed.
One of our hostel rooms, C-70, was unofficially the workshop for our robotics projects. Meshes of colorful wires, soldering irons, multimeters, circuit boards, diodes, microcontrollers, LEDs, resistors, hacksaws, hammers, screw drivers, adhesives, tapes, screws and pieces of wooden cutouts occupied most of the room, at all times. A dusty radio lying by the window with an extended antenna, connected to an aluminum hanger hanging outside the window to catch signals was proudly, was our entertainment unit.
After about a week spent on the robot’s basic body structure, drive mechanism and remote control circuits, we seemed to be in good shape. Even as we progressed healthily, deep down, somewhere, we were skeptical if we were good enough to compete at an international robotic contest.
‘We need to consider the impact when it lands; let’s try springs to absorb the impact.’ Gopoo suggested.
After three hours of efforts on the spring mechanism, we were ready to test.
Considering my success history, I was designated as the operator. Placing the robot on the one-meter high platform that we had made for tests, I pressed the paddle though the wireless remote control.
Vroommm… it took off, to land just for a moment on the ground. With a spongy clunk it bounced back and went springing haphazardly before coming to rest by the radio.
We laughed our bellies out and without a word, unanimously, we dismissed springs.
After a few sane fights, tens of design modifications and countless hours of forfeited sleep, we came up with a four rubber-wheeled, low base, wooden structure assembled with hardcore adhesives which would only fissure on the doomsday, or may be not even then. After a month since KC unwrapped the Survivor contest, we were ready for a confident test run.
As the preliminary stage of contest qualification, we needed to send a video demonstrating our robot continuing to function even after the fall.
I geared up with the remote control. Akhil placed the robot on the platform. Gopoo positioned strategically with the camera and KC waited at a distance where we expected it to land on the rug.
With a nod from Gopoo and a beep from his camera, I pressed the trigger.
With a persuasive buzz, it rolled up to the peak of the platform. It ran the length of the platform and at fine speed it landed by KC’s feet on the rug. About a couple of tumbles later it settled upside down. We looked at each other and smiled.
Our design strategy to keep all the circuits, sensors and batteries to fit in between the diameter of the wheels proved to be a hit. With such a design, no matter on which side the robot landed, it would still remain functional as everything, that mattered, remained safe between the wheels; only the wheels touched the ground.
With a hope that the drive circuits were not damaged by the thud, I powered through the joystick and it sprinted like a knife on the butter. We screamed in joy as soon as Gopoo stopped recording.
We baptized our baby ‘The Immortal’!
Like the soldiers dropping from a helicopter in a war field, we disembarked the Karnavati Express at Mumbai Central. Symbolically, it was the Republic Day, 26th January. We assembled in a corner by the staircase of the pathway and all I noticed was ‘People’. Mumbai, the city of dreams as they said, had people, and lots of them. Even on a national holiday there were enough people running, literally, to catch their local trains to freak out my inner peaceable soul.
A little tap on my arm interrupted me from getting dragged into the illusive human mesh.
‘Bhaiya, Jai Hind!’ a little girl, about nine or ten, said. She glowed in her white frock that had a little tri-colored Indian national flag pinned blow her left shoulder; brought an instant smile on my face.
‘Jai Hind.’ I said proudly.
‘May I?’ she picked out a teeny national flag made of paper from her pocket in one hand and a pin in the other.
‘Sure.’ I bent down.
Rising on her toes, she neatly pinned the flag on my t-shirt exactly on my heart with a smile.
Her friends followed it to KC, Akhil and Gopoo.
Being officially designated as national soldiers, we marched towards IIT Campus.
First day was scheduled to have the knock out league rounds of the Survivor Competition and the next was to hold the semis and the finals. So, at the end of the day one, out of thirty odd participants from across the globe, top four teams were to be finalized.
In addition to our confidence in our design, we only had one thing to depend on; Belief. Holding on to the belief, we entered the arena where qualification rounds were being held. A few confident teams relaxing with their robots and a few frantically freaked out teams balanced the tournament apparently.
I opened the bag and dragged our machine out like a snake charmer unveiling a cobra from his basket.
We still had to fine tune to complement actual playing conditions. Gopoo opened his laptop for final alternations in the line following program. KC joined the queue at the registration desk. Akhil rushed to check out the fixtures chart.
KC returned in ten minutes with our identity cards. ‘Registration is done. Keep your participant tags around necks all the time. That’s the instruction.’
‘Our first game is at eleven.’ Akhil informed while he hung his participant tag around his neck.
‘The Immortal versus The Fly-High’ the anchor announced.
Nervously, I went to our side of the mark. I turned on the remote control and double-checked the settings on the robot. Opponent operator joined me on his side of the platform, our eyes met and silent nods of Good Luck were conveyed.
The stage was set. Referee was ready with his whistle and the audience, mostly students, waited in anticipation. I sighed and placed my thumbs on the triggers.
Whistle blew, three minutes of cakewalk, and a huge-margin triumph placed us in the round of sixteen. For the first time we realized how superior our robot was. Great feeling!
Even though hunger had taken a backseat amid all the adrenaline rush, some noodles and cold coffee were tempting enough for us to take a break from watching other games.
Over lunch, we discussed if we were lucky to have got a weak opponent to start with. What if the next one is not as easy? What could we do better, strategically or technically, to time better and grasp more points?
A few notes were taken and implemented promptly before the next game.
Considering opponent’s agility, we anticipated our second round to be a stiff one. With high spirits and a quick group hug, we went into the second game.
On the whistle, both the robots climbed the slope almost mirrored to each other. Both jumped off the cliff together and that was where the difference unearthed. While our opponent’s robot landed stably closer to the platform, the Immortal landed vertically, and rolled its full length thrice before jumping over the pivoted gate and settling directly in the blocks section.
Audience went crazy over the Immortal’s robotic dance. I was stunned at the landing and so were the referees. They had not a rule prepared for such a scenario, it seemed. I looked at the referee to get a nod to move ahead directly with block placements. Conversely, he instructed me to come back to the rug section through the gate and go back to the blocks section properly through the gate again. Instead of wasting time in arguments, trusting our speed, I followed his verdict.
Back in the blocks section, both the robots were neck-to-neck. Both placed a block each almost at the same time. We reached line following at the same time and followed the lines at close to the same speed.
At the end of a nail biting contest, we waited keenly for the result.
The announcer consulted the referee and said, ‘Excellent show by both the teams. Wasn’t it? Let’s give them a big hand guys.’
The crows cheered in agreement.
‘In spite of both of them grabbing near-equal points in the second and the third sections, thanks to their farther leap, with a lead of just three points, the winner is, The Immortal.’
We felt the rush of winning a super over in a cricket world cup final. A big group hug with hopping feet exhibited our excitement.
The third round game was as tough as the second. However, with experience, lesser nerves and accurate strategy, we managed to be through comfortably with a ten-point victory over our opponents from IIT Bombay.
It was only later in the hectic day did we realize that we had made it through three knock out rounds from thirty plus international teams to the top four. We would play the semi final, and hopefully the final, the next day in front of a huge audience against brilliantly designed robots.
At the concluding hour of the day, we decided to take a leisure walk through, what they called the infinite corridors. It was serene. Most of the chaos had subsided. The corridor’s vibes, epic and erudite buildings, lush green surroundings and twittering birds spoke a volume of the country’s top technology institute.
The next morning, with rejuvenated energy and a will to hit the last two nails in the coffin, we entered the convocation hall, the venue for the finals.
It was a hall where the country’s best engineers had received their degrees over the decades. Brownish maroon seats waited in anticipation of viewers who would wait in anticipation of cracking contests in the Survivor finals. Between the rows of the seats, two streaks of stairs piloted down to the core of the hall where a huge wooden stage grabbed all the limelight. One big screen each on the either side of the stage was set to telecast the live feed of the finals to serve the viewers an in depth view. The setup for the Survivor glittered in yellowish white lights at the center of the stage.
Paired against a team from IIT Delhi for the semi finals, we stepped on to the stage to a jam-packed audience. I got set at my half of the platform. Akhil and KC waited at the other end of the track, near the line following segment. Gopoo stood beside me and whispered in my ears, ‘Relax and Focus.’ I nodded.
Whistle blew and for the first time in the competition, our opponent raced comprehensively ahead of us. Somehow, even though I followed the same strategy as the previous games, the Immortal lacked the thrust. By the time our rival almost crossed the pivot gate, I could only manage our boy to get to the top of the platform. It took a stroll and jumped feebly on the rug. It seemed as if I was operating an entirely different machine than the previous day. Its zeal was lost and so was the swiftness; as if the Immortal had retired overnight.
Batteries had malfunctioned. Nightmare!
A few glances amongst our team raised heartbeats. By the time the Immortal reached the blocks section through the gate like a dying soldier crawling behind enemy lines, the rivals were already half way on the line following.
The rest was just a formality for us before being announced losers officially.
Anger and agony jigged in my heart.
How could something so fail-safe go so horribly wrong? We froze in disbelief at the end of the game while the opponents cheered in joy having booked their berth in the final.
We quietly went back to our seats in the first row on the far left corner. For quite a while, none of us spoke a word.
‘Guys, what happened? I followed you yesterday and I think your design is fabulous.’ A fan, as we would like to introduce him, whispered in KC’s ears from behind.
‘Thanks. I think the batteries gave up. We had them charged and checked before the game. I still cannot understand…’ KC shrugged in despair.
‘You better fix it soon; whatever it is; before the next game.’
‘Dude, we just lost the knock out semi final. We are done.’ I verbalized my anguish.
And he unwrapped a surprise package, ‘What are you saying? You will face the team to the second semi finals. You still have a chance to win bronze medal and the third prize, 500 US Dollars.’
‘What?’ we cried in unison.
‘Yes. By the way Hi, I am Vishal, from IIT-Bombay. I am one of the committee members of the Survivor Contest. I’m one of those who designed the game and the format. You don’t want to argue with me.’ He winked and continued.
‘You and your robot are smart and innovative. I really want to see you guys win the bronze game. Pull up your socks and get back to fixing that bloody glitch.’
We were off in a flash to the work pit and in no time, we identified and fixed the hitch to be back with a bang.
The other team to get defeated in the second semi final, who would be our opponents in the bronze medal game, was from the USA.
Amid the announcement for the game, I grabbed the Indian national flag, the paper-one from the railway station, and stuck it on the top of the Immortal. The gearbox creaked; he seemed to have liked it.
‘It is down to the India versus the USA for the bronze.’ the announcement magnetized loud cheer from the chock-a-block audience.
At the whistle the Immortal flew off the podium in a jiffy and landed at the farthest distance by any team in the whole competition; a record in itself. As if a routine, it went through the gate and placed the blocks with a surgeon’s precision while the Americans were yet to jump off the cliff. I handed over the remote control to the referee as KC switched on the autonomous mechanism on the machine. Slowly, steadily and with utter authority, it followed the line to displace balls on the way.
Audience went nuts to scream at the top of their voices seeing the big screen as the camera zoomed in at the tri-colored Indian flag on the Immortal. Chants of ‘India… India…’ followed to give me goose bumps.
‘The winners… are… The Immortal!!!’ the announcement finally sealed the day for us.
At the end of a roller-coaster day, we stood in front of the Powai Lake in the tranquility of a gorgeous campus. Birds chirped to offer background music while we rewound the experience of a lifetime.
What we gained was much more than just five hundred dollars. Few things are only understood symbolically. Life will offer highs and higher, lows and lowers.
Even at the lowest, life will also offer a second chance waiting to be seized! Do it.
Feel Immortal, Stay Immortal!