Tracking the bleaching of coral reefs is a labour-intensive process. Divers descend to the seafloor with a PVC frame, swim up, take a photo, then descend again to move the frame and start the process over. But now, thanks to technology developed by HKU students, that task has been made much easier. They invented an autonomous robot that sits on the surface of the water, projects a virtual frame on the reef surface and generates 3D maps.
The MindoroBots was developed by BEng student Sidhant Gupta and his classmate Rohak Singhal, who learned about the mapping problem through MakerBay, a Hong Kong maker community.
They recruited 10 other HKU students from engineering, business and biological sciences and secured funding from the Gallant Ho Experiential Learning Fund to devise their camera-robot prototype and test it in HKU’s ponds. In early 2018 they completed a trip to Mindoro Island in the Philippines to do live ocean testing and after a few tweaks – bamboo pipes replaced plastic pipes – they successfully launched the MindoroBots, which can produce maps of the ocean’s surface up to eight metres in depth.
The project attracted attention from the media and scholars in the Philippines, who have adopted it for distribution among fishermen. Sidhant also presented a paper on the MindoroBots at a coral reef conference in the UK, where it sparked interest in their technology.
“In class, we have good budgets for our projects, a lot of expert support and all the machinery we need. But in the real world working with real problems, it’s a lot harder. This project taught us how to build things, recruit and handle teams, and work together. It also taught us how to find problems and create impact,” Sidhant said.
Because we had little funding and limited knowledge and expertise, we had to think within the realms of what we know. We were able to use simple stuff to create this impact by understanding the value of what we study in class.
Mr Sidhant Gupta
Opportunity to innovate
That experience inspired him to seek out other opportunities. He and another classmate, Tejasvi Mehra, started the Open Source Remote Education Initiative, which has brought tablets and teaching software to remote communities in the Philippines, India and Vietnam (see HKU Review 2018). More recently, Sidhant led a team to develop an affordable braille keyboard and reader that connects to smartphones and laptops. The project turned out to be a successful test of their innovation skills and their ability to work within a tight budget of HK$3,000, which was provided by the alumni-supported HKU 81 Inclusion Fund.
Braille readers on the market cost a minimum US$600 and the initial aim of Sidhant and his team was to produce a cheaper version by sourcing materials in Shenzhen. However, this proved impossible because there was no way to reduce the cost of a key feature of braille keyboards, the piezos – pins that expand and contract to create characters similar to braille on paper. Piezos cost a minimum US$30–40 each and each reader needs at least six of them.
Seeking expert input
The prototype was developed in Shenzhen and the students also sought external advice. They visited organisations in Japan that promote inclusivity and learned that eight pins were needed to accommodate Japanese braille, so they added two more pins. They also got user input from a visually-impaired friend at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, who told them they were designing from the perspective of a sighted person and advised them how to change.
“We originally planned to attach the device to the back of the phone but he said that he didn’t need to have the phone in his hand because he wouldn’t be reading off it. So we came up with a handheld device that can be used separately from the phone. The phone can be kept in your pocket,” he said.
The drawings and other information about the technology are available for free through open-source platforms and anyone is welcome to develop software and apps for it.
“Because we had little funding and limited knowledge and expertise, we had to think within the realms of what we know. We were able to use simple stuff to create this impact by understanding the value of what we study in class,” he said. “And over the time I have been at HKU, it has really grown. There are a lot of opportunities for students.”
STUDENT VISIONS FOR
CORAL REEFS AND
Engineering student Sidhant Gupta has led fellow students to apply their learning to solve difficult problems in the real world, including mapping coral reefs and devising an affordable braille reader that works with smartphones.
Sidhant and his team on a visit to organisations in Japan that promote inclusivity to modify and finetune the braille keyboard.
Initiated by computer engineering students Sidhant Gupta and Rohak Singhal, MindoroBots is an initiative to build open-source robots which aim to reliably and effectively replace humans in coral reef surveying.
Realising the futility of this approach, the students decided to innovate instead. Sidhant had been working on his final-year research project to develop a prosthetic hand using vibration technology and he decided to apply this to the reader.
“Since we couldn’t substitute the piezos, we decided to replace it with something else that a visually-impaired person could still understand. The underlying system is called Vibrate and instead of sticking in and out, the pins just vibrate,” he said. The best part is that each vibrating pin costs only HK$3 (less than 50 US cents).
The prototype of the braille keyboard and reader developed by Sidhant Gupta and his teammates.