Sunday, April 07, 2019

All-seeing eye in the skies

The institution is closed for the day, but the design and development centre of unmanned aerial vehicles at MIT is droning with activity. I am invited into the conference room where Dr. S. Thamarai Selvi, Director, Centre for Technology Development & Transfer, Anna University, Chennai, is talking to the Dhaksha team. Their immediate concern is to send the tech-team to Thiruvannamalai to help operate their crowd-monitoring drone during the deepam festival. Their tech van is about to leave.

Team Dhaksha is special. Mentored by Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam since 2002, it is part of Centre for Aerospace Research, Madras Institute of Technology (MIT), campus of Anna University, Tamil Nadu.

“A course named Aviation Electronics was launched by Dr. Kalam under the Department of Science & Technology,” said Dr. K Senthilkumar, Director-CASR. “We were procuring weapons and we needed skilled manpower to deploy them. Initially, DRDO came to MIT to train students to understand imported weapons. Anna University admitted both GATE and non-GATE students in the course.” Now team Dhaksha designs and develops unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and true to all initiatives Dr. Kalam touched, creates innovative UAV technologies for various social applications.

The Dhaksha UAV project was launched with a R 20-crore grant from the Tamil Nadu government under TN Innovation Initiative Scheme, said Director Thamarai Selvi. Other government agencies like DRDO funded the photogramatic mapping. Since then, Dhaksha drones have reached great heights, making customised vehicles for government projects.

The DARPA award the team won in 2012 was a landmark — the Dhaksha vehicle was chosen for reliability, stability, advanced tech, and cost-effectiveness. “We competed against ten teams. We had to fly the drone over 5 km of pine trees and land it on a church roof.” They flew it in Savannah, Georgia, where, with great presence of mind, the team tweaked the machine to fly under different conditions. “It then struck us. Why wait for tech-transfer? Why not start our own research centre in India?”

All the members were offered positions in the U.S. for UAV research, but they chose to come back. “I spent my entire student life with the Dhaksha team,” said Dr. Mohammad Rasheed, the integration expert and team member for 12 years. For him, it is a 24x7 obsession. He brings together all the systems — quality of output, UAV testing and flight, architecture. The strength of the lab is the student group, says the team. “We place them in research projects in different domains.”
06/04/19 Geeta Padmanabhan/The Hindu
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