September 15 2022: The two years and more of the Covid pandemic, saw drones perform multiple sorties across India, delivering vaccines and other medical supplies to remote corners.
One challenge remained: how to maximise the delivery within the flight endurance of the drone. Landing at every location took up too much time and reduced the reach of the drone. Air dropping was a possibility – but payloads tended to get damaged.
It was a challenge for those in charge of delivering such critical supplies by drone…. a challenge that motivated students in a Kerala school, working on projects in the Atal Tinkering Lab, an outreach of the government of India’s Atal Innovation Mission, to come up with a solution.
At the Amrita Vidyalayam, in Puthiyakavu, Karunagapally, near Kollam Kerala, 9th standard student Madhumati Anand and her class mates Sanjula Sreekumar and Vyshak Ajith addressed the problem of how to package delicate payloads that could be air dropped without damage in disaster relief scenarios.
Sanjula researched the medical angle, studying the type of emergency supplies typically required to be transported.
Madhumati took up the core design of the delivery platform – turning to an engineering principle sometimes used in the design of structures, called Tensegrity, also known as Floating compression
Simply put, this means creating a structure with two components: struts and cords. The struts are in a state of constant compression, while the cords are in a state of constant tension. The resulting combo ensures that the structure is able to absorb significant shock – the shock of a hard landing say – without breaking.
After many months of trials, Madhumati finally selected sticks of cane to form the struts and jute cord to tie them together. Inside this structure which is roughly octahedral in shape, the delicate payload is wrapped in wool and suspended from the outer structure with jute strings. The result was a modern application of a Tensegrity – delivering structures which retain their integrity, thanks to a built-in state of tension.
The third student in the team, Vyshak, has explored how to slow down the fall of the payload structure ; it is a complex task still being addressed.
After repeated trials the students managed to land delicate loads of medicines and syringes without damage even when dropped by drones from as high as 70 metres (230 feet). The students received valuable help from AMMACHI Labs, the academic and interdisciplinary research centre of Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham (University)
Recognizing the value of this invention – and the use of readily available eco-friendly and biodegradable materials like cane and jute – the project’s mentor and guide, Gayathri Manikutty, worked with the school management and the Amrita group of institutions to protect the intellectual property by applying simultaneously for both Indian and US patents.
Two US patents granted
The US Patent Office awarded two patents in May and August this year, to Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, one recognizing the innovation and the other, the practical application of protective packaging and delivery. In recognition of her core contribution to the innovation, the student, Madhumathi Anand is the first assignee of the US patents. The Indian Patent Office has not yet conveyed a decision.
Last month at a national education conference in Bengaluru – DIDAC India 2022 – the Amrita school project was a big draw at the stand of the Atal Innovation Mission, with Madhumati on hand to explain the Tensegrity project to this correspondent and other delegates. Earlier in 2020, the three students received wide appreciation at the Fablearn Asia international educational symposium in Bangkok, Thailand,where they presented their work.
The project, interrupted by many months of Covid-driven school closure, has now resumed. The student innovators are in class 12 now.
Mrs Gayathri said the size of the payload, which was around 100 grams during initial trials, had now been successfully increased to 750 grams. Both the students and teachers involved, were hugely motivated by the encouragement and support of the Amrita management and the opportunities offered under the Atal Innovation Mission, she added.
How many school managements would recognize the potential of the innovation flowing from their students; would undertake the procedural hassles and the sheer expense of applying for Indian and global patents and make a child, the co-author of the patent?