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Meet the ‘chief operating robot’

Balaji Lakshmanan from Chennai chose to be Rancho rather than Chatur Ramalingam, even before 3 Idiots was made.

The 31-year-old founder and “chief operating robot” of Geeky Robotics has no regrets that he didn’t chase dollars in the US but preferred higher studies at IIT Madras after graduation in computer science and a brief stint with an IT major.

“Some of my friends, working in hotshot companies abroad, drive BMWs. But this is the best thing that could’ve happened to me. With limited investments, I have been able to build a robotics company that contributes to several important sectors. I am doing much better than driving a BMW,” he said after his presentation, Innovation in Robotics, at Infocom 2013 — an ABP Group initiative.

Balaji’s company is currently making inroads into healthcare, banking, education and even movies.

The journey started in 2002 when he was an undergraduate at Velammal Engineering College. “I wanted to prepare a paper that was innovative. One day I was stuck in a traffic jam because of an earthmover. I thought, what if somebody could control that earthmover from remote locations. I took a toy crane model and connected it to a computer and controlled it. That’s how it started,” said the man who spends 17-18 hours in his workshop.

A year after he started Geeky Robotics (better known for the brand imakerobots.com), success came in the form of a telepresence robot prototype used by Cognizant Technology Solutions (Chennai) in 2009. “It was like videoconferencing on wheels. Say you’re in India but you want to be in an office in New York. Imagine a robot that can move around with a camera and a screen. You can log on to the robot using your computer or mobile,” he explained.

At present, his focus is on healthcare and breast cancer to be specific. “It’s a collaboration between IIT Madras and Patterson Cancer Institute, Chennai. We are looking for a solution that involves zero touch. It’s a combination of robotics and thermal imaging, machine-learning algorithm, some image stitching, etc. We are close to finishing the model.”

His medical robotics “can detect pulse, read body temperature, has a zoom camera to focus on the eyes or tongue… all this can be done remotely by a doctor”.

India is a hesitant market, though. “When I go to the US, people grasp ideas more willingly. In India, the turnaround time is longer. Second, there is the issue of labour. Robots are used to cut labour cost. Labour comes relatively cheap in India but the situation is changing.”

His field has expanded from the medical room to the movie screen. Mugamoodi (2012), a Tamil film directed by Myshkin, has a six-feet-tall robot he designed. His animatronics can be seen at the upcoming I, an S. Shankar movie with A.R. Rahman’s music.