By Rahul Chhabra
In India, where 15 people are killed in road accidents every hour, mainly due to poor road infrastructure and low driving discipline, there would be few who would bet on self-driving vehicles. But a bunch of undergraduate engineering students at Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Pilani, are working tirelessly towards this goal. They believe AI-based technology for autonomous vehicles for the highly unstructured Indian roads is not impossible. If used efficiently, technology can even save precious lives. “When we develop our India-specific autonomous navigation system, it will be a case of one size fitting all… the technology would work in all corners of the globe,” said Prateek Garg, team leader at Sally Robotics—a student research group working at the Centre for Robotics and Intelligent Systems (CRIS), BITS Pilani. At present, the available global autonomous technologies cannot be efficiently replicated in the Indian context given the lack of strict enforcement of speed limits, rampant lane-jumping, signal-jumping, helmet-less violations and other critical challenges, he said, explaining the purpose behind their India-specific effort.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the US, their country can reduce the number of road accidents through the use of automated vehicles by a substantial amount, since 94% of the serious accidents are due to human error. “For a country like India with a very high number of road accidents, this safety assurance is no less than a fortune,” said Anirudh Chakravarthy, a computer vision researcher at Sally. The team estimates that a substantial part of a fully researched working prototype of their India-specific autonomous vehicle technology may be ready in the next three years.
Apart from being among the few university teams in India working on autonomous driving models, Team Sally dreams of revolutionising the way India drives. “Self-driving vehicles open up mobility options for people with disabilities. India can be the leading supplier of autonomous vehicles if the technology is developed efficiently. Especially in the public transport domain, big Indian vehicle makers can use this technology and export their products which can be a big boost for the economy,” said Harsha Baskar, another team member.
Constantly battling challenges thrown up by Covid-linked campus restrictions, the 28-member student team currently carries out its research activity remotely under the supervision of Professor Bijay Kumar Rout, BITS Pilani. Team Sally is divided into four major subsystems—computer vision, simultaneous localisation and mapping, navigation and mechanical design. Computer vision team’s mission is to allow the machines to gain ‘vision’ or ‘sight’; SLAM subsystem helps in the autonomous building of a localised map for the machine; navigation subsystem discovers the optimum route from one point to another along with local path planning, and mechanical design aims to build frameworks for the car to execute a response—like handling of steering, acceleration and cruise control—based on insights received from other subsystems.
As for the financial part of the research, Garg said the institute has provided the team with the support of Rs 1 lakh. “We also received a cash prize amounting Rs 50,000 from DRDO for a prototype we demonstrated at DRDO Robotics & Unmanned Systems Exposition-2018, winning the first prize.” “In addition to this, we have also received funds of around Rs 2 lakh for the vehicle which is an Alto 800 car (on which we build the autonomous system)”, said Shankara Narayanan, senior SLAM researcher at Sally Robotics.
According to a National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, during 2014, 1.41 lakh people were killed and 4.77 lakh injured in 4.50 lakh accidents. By 2030, road accidents are expected to become the fifth leading cause of death in India. According to a World Health Organisation report, 3% of India’s GDP amounting Rs 3.5 lakh crore is lost due to road accidents.
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