More power to Tessa

What makes Tessa, the humanoid robot, special is that the students made her from scratch and not with the help of any robotic kit, writes Vandana Mohandas
Last Updated : 21 December 2019, 20:15 IST

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Someone who drives past Siddhartha Central School in the quiet Pallimon village at the Kollam district of Kerala would guess that something big is happening there. For the past few weeks, people from various walks of life have been thronging the school premises, with one wish — to get a glimpse of Tessa.

Well, their latest celebrity Tessa is not a student, but a humanoid robot built by the Robotics Club of the school. What makes Tessa special is that the students made her from scratch and not with the help of any robotic kit. The ‘genius robot’, as the kids call it, who would sing, walk, rotate its head, narrate stories, answer queries and recognise voices, was born in the school robotics lab.

It took almost one year for the students to develop, programme and build a working prototype of the AI-powered 27-kg robot, for which they designed the body using thermocol, plaster of paris and fibre coating. “Around 150 students from class 7th and 8th were involved in the process. They made use of their weekly hour-long robotics period and turned up at school during weekends and holidays to work on the robot,” says Sam, the system administrator of the school, who guided the Robotics Club along with staff of Techosa Innovations, a robotics firm.

A natural

Tessa, built on Google Cloud database, can understand natural speech and can reply to any query. She can speak, sing and being sensor-enabled, move autonomously without hitting any object on the path. Bluetooth-controlled and enabled with gesture interaction, Tessa looks at the person who talks to her and can rotate her head to the direction of sound, reciprocating to calls and conversations.

“She is an assistant to us. She can rotate her head in 180 degrees and answer any query,” says Devananda, a seventh-grader, who is part of the robotics team, and explains the future plans, “Tessa will be our school’s main attraction. After updating her with face recognition, she will be placed at the school gate welcoming visitors and identifying the faces of parents and guardians of the students. We are also updating her with home automation so that she can control the electrical system of the school and switch off anything that’s left on by mistake. As of now, Tessa has no arms, so we will first give her arms.” The students will add surveillance mechanism to Tessa, who will also be the school receptionist who can offer the visitors a guided tour of the institution. Reciting the prayer and national anthem, she will soon grace the school assemblies and be an assistant to the sweepers by helping with cleaning.

Proud moment

It has been two years since robotics was added to the school curriculum with an aim to encourage lessons on technological advancement in artificial intelligence and automation. “We started with basic electronics in class V and progressed to programming concepts as the students reached class VII. It was during a summer camp that they came up with the idea of Tessa after they were introduced to the semi-humanoid Pepper robot. The robot was built at a cost of Rs 2 lakh,” recalls Sam.

It was a proud day for the whole school when Tessa was unveiled in collaboration with the promotion of the Malayalam movie Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25 which narrates the story of a man who grows attached to the robot which takes care of him. A team of 12 students will be accompanying Tessa to an international robotic conference in New Delhi. Once back to school, Tessa would be actively assisting in academics. When asked if she would replace teachers, Sam laughs, “No, even among robots, there’s no substitute for a teacher.” The students, too, would agree with him.

Published 21 December 2019, 20:07 IST

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