Chasing the dream of a coconut robot

By Meimei Qin

Dreams. We all have them. What would you do to pursue yours?

Prabhu Mani left his motherland and created robots as a volunteer — and that was just the first step.

“Farming is like gambling”

Having grown up on a farm in Tamil Nadu, the southernmost part of India, Prabhu Mani has witnessed various struggles in local agriculture, and believes that labor shortage is the biggest problem faced by most Indian farmers.

A coconut farm in Tamil Nadu, India. Photographer: Bart van Overbeeke Fotografie

Having seen his family managing their coconut farm, Prabhu knows how demanding the job is. It requires an incredible amount of bravery and dexterity to climb the tree and pluck coconuts. “You need really skilled people to do certain tasks that are dangerous,” he says. For regular crops like tomatoes, every step, from sowing seeds, fertilizing and watering plants, to harvesting crops, requires labor. With more young people taking up professions in cities, hiring people for farming can cost a lot, sometimes more than the farmers might earn if bad weather strikes or market price drops.

“It’s like gambling,” Prabhu says. “When farmers cannot pay loans back, some end their life by suicide. For some peasants, it’s a social shame if they have debts. So they work really hard to pay these things back, but they cannot.”

Prabhu believes the situation could be changed if robots filled the labor shortage. The thought hit him when he was studying Computer Science and Engineering at college in India. “I realized all manual tasks can be automated,” he says, stressing his focus is on robots exclusively for India, as existing solutions in developed countries may simply be too expensive in his motherland. “You cannot sell farmers a 50,000 euro machine when their average income is, let’s say, 300 euros per month. How much would they like to pay? Nothing, if possible,” he notes. He adds that the possibilities of renting or co-owning robots or government subsidies could also help bring down the cost for farmers.

“What’s really lacking there is technology,” says Prabhu, who defines himself as a ‘realistic dreamer’ on his way to agricultural automation, “it’s a difficult task but it is possible.”

Goodbye to motherland, groundwork for adventure

Prabhu tried to explain his idea of creating a ‘cocobot’ to his mom — it could be the starting point for agricultural automation in their region. She didn’t fully understand his plan but supported him with her heart. She bought him the first laptop, costing roughly the same as living in India for two months.

With this laptop, Prabhu started his career as a programmer in India after college, one of the most respectable local professions. “But I wanted to do more. I wanted to program sophisticated machines like robots. I believe everything should become automated in agriculture in the future.” He felt an internal pull to do work that really excited him, “I kept remembering what my parents want — they want practical solutions.”

When Prabhu started listening to the voice whispering to his heart, he moved on towards his dream: he quit the job, left his motherland, and took his laptop to Sweden for a Master program in Embedded Systems, where he spent two years laying the groundwork for building a robot. By devoting himself to all robotic-related optional courses, he learnt to use control systems for robot movements, acquired knowledge on how to build robotic eyes, and made applications using sensors to help blind people in their navigation.

“It’s like I was getting different pieces of a puzzle, so that in the end I can make a robot to solve agriculture problems — that’s the main goal,” he says.

Prabhu Mani from Falcons on RoboCup 2015 in China. Photographer: Bart van Overbeeke Fotografie

The first step of a journey of a thousand miles

Prabhu’s journey of chasing his dream took off in 2013: he joined ASML in the Netherlands, a leading chip-making equipment manufacturer. ASML delivers its cutting-edge machines to customers like Intel, TSMC and Samsung to enable them produce smaller, cheaper, but more powerful chips.

“The shrinking of the chips enables future technology on robotics and automation — being part of ASML means being part of the future robots,” he says. Working here, Prabhu made the first complete robot in his life, together with his colleagues in his spare time, and turned from a ‘dreamer’ into a ‘realistic dreamer’.

In his full-time job as an embedded software developer at the company with more than 17,000 employees, Prabhu learnt what was possible, what wasn’t possible, and how to plan realistically. “I was too optimistic, and so were my plans — that didn’t help sometimes. If you take on too many things at the same time, then they will never happen. So start by making small steps. You take up something, finish it, and then go to the next one,” he says.

In addition to his daily job, he continued towards his dream of creating farming robots. He spends two nights until 10pm every week on a hobby project as a firmware engineer for the Falcons, ASML’s robot football team that competes in the mid-size league, which consists of more than 30 employees for software and hardware development. It’s a playground for ASML adventurers to explore and practice new technology that doesn’t touch their routine job.

“People can take bigger risks than would be appropriate in their daily jobs, and have more opportunities to fail as they learn,” says Jaap Vos, the captain of Falcons.

“I burnt two motors at Falcons,” Prabhu laughs, explaining how a bad control system could result in motors smoking up, adding the team solved the problem by not leaving any stone unturned. “Falcons was a small but a great platform for learning. You could immediately try things out and see how they behave, so your learning curve becomes very steep.”

Prabhu Mani at the Experience Center of ASML in Veldhoven, Netherland. Photographer: Bart van Overbeeke Fotografie

The more Prabhu learns, the more challenges he seeks. He joined another internal project to build a prototype robot and spent 20 hours a week for six months as a volunteer system design architect. “You don’t see it as a waste of time but something that keeps you happy,” he says. “What keeps you motivated is the progress. You can enable the robot to see, to move and to stop autonomously when necessary.”

Within six months, the team managed to build their robot from scratch. While contributing his knowledge on software, Prabhu also gained basic knowledge of mechanical engineering and electronics — the other two essential areas for building robots — by working closely with colleagues with such expertise.

“I can now make a robot by myself,” he says. “The project gave me a lot of confidence and knowledge to realize my dream.”

The journey matters more than the destination

While the next step for Prabhu is to develop independently a small household robot designed to water plants at his apartment in the Netherlands, the dream of building a coconut robot and other farming robots is still far away. “If the journey is one hundred steps — all I’ve done is step one,” he says.

When asked what will happen if he doesn’t end up being successful, Prabhu says he will still be okay. “You can fail. It’s no problem. If you never try, you will never know.”

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