The Rogue Start-Up
Saurabh Chandra labels Ati Motors, a “rogue start-up.” First, it is situated in the typical neighborhood of Malleshwaram in Bengaluru, where uncles debating cricket scores are a popular sight — not a beginning business that produces self-supporting vehicles.
Second, the latest AV room is where tech giants and start-ups hack the road ahead — so it’s certainly not a start-up based on a cookie-cutter model. Finally, the three co-founders question myths across the breadth of entrepreneurship and experience.
Fifty-five-year-old Vinay is an Indian Institute of Science former Professor of computer science, while Saad Nasser is a prodigy of 18 who left high school at eight. The business base for the two computer wizards was Chandra, who sold his IT service company to the French multinational Publicis in his early 1940s.
“After leaving the school, I wanted to start a school for gifted children because India is the only major country that does not have a school program like that,” says Chandra. “That’s how I came to know Vinay, who runs a weekend program to mentor gifted children such as Saad.”
Three years on, they have an independent freight vehicle in a textile factory in Chennai, known as Sherpa. But the plant is shut down during coronavirus lock-down as most of India.
The rogue beginning company has installed a smaller Sherpa sibling that will be deployed in a hospital in Bengaluru next month. To reduce the touch, AVs are already supplying medicines for patients in a Guangdong provincial hospital in China.
LIDAR (Light Detection & Ranging)
Sherpa technology is much more robust than a warehouse or humanoid robots and is close to what driverless cars such as Tesla and Google are developing. The LIDAR (Light Detection & Ranging) eye-level processes more visual signals than the worm-hole view of robots or humanoids that can function in other configurations. This helps the Sherpa, which rolls on automotive wheels, to walk both inside and outside the yard or lane.
“They have embraced and applied a public autonomy approach to an industrial environment. Our resistance to environmental changes is greater. Our 3D LIDAR is at a height at which we see far more of the world than robots,” Chandra says.
A lock with empty roads seems a perfect scenario to check driverless food supplies and other important items with autonomous vehicles like Sherpa, which can bear 150 kg of load on its back bed or hold 500 kilograms of load on a truck. Although these use cases in India are difficult to pursue without regulatory help, foodstuffs are already being distributed in driverless cars in China and the United States.
California granted AV start-up Nuro, founded by former Google engineers, a license earlier this month to use public roads for food supplies to driverless vanes in the bay area. The start-up in Mountain View must check this before applying for a statewide license for commercial use. On the other side of the planet, the self-driving UDIs from China have been sending food to communities in Zibo, a locked region of the province of Shandong, for three months.
Chandra finds it necessary that alternate methods play a role in the understanding of the pandemic. “What is the city’s corporate continuity plan? Even if autonomous vehicles are not used on public roads daily, they can be viewed as ambulances.”
However, for now, Ati focuses on the implementation of plants and hospitals because they do not want to stifle more than they can chew as an early start-up. It has been mostly booted, funded by angel investors.
The Sherpa was tested on the IISc campus, and the start-up works along with the Robert Bosch Centre. It was an opportunity for Professor Chiranjib Bhattacharyya of the Robert Bosch Centre to engage with new technology. “Experimenting on the ground with autonomous navigation is not straightforward. So that pleased me very much,” he says.
The Professor worked on drones, but the entire stack AV, including an electronic transmission train, electronic sensors, 3D LIDAR, integrated computing, and the AI autonomy system, was designed from the ground up. It also has a suspension to withstand shocks on Indian roads and floors.
The most exciting aspect for the Professor was the ability to test SLAM algorithms (simultaneous location and navigation). This is a chicken-and-egg problem, in which the Sherpa has to map new environments while keeping track of its location with LIDAR signals.
Any new environment poses growing challenges. E.g., the Sherpa is going at a slower speed in the factory than a driverless Waymo or Tesla car on a side street. “Our problem statement varies slightly from their problem statement,” Chandra says. “They do that with their 3D LIDAR at 80 miles an hour, while we strive to achieve precision at slower speeds in our setting as cheap as possible.”
Transform Hardware Ventures
Most of the SLAM algorithms from Sherpa come from Vinay, who left IISc at the turn of the millennium with three colleagues to create the Simple. This was a mobile computer before its release, with an accelerometer for the functionality we are all used to on smartphone screens. But then India had no risk capital ecosystem to transform hardware ventures like these into global winners. Vinay has gone on to launch other businesses, including the biotech companies Strand Life Sciences and Jedi, which mentor “talented engineers.”
Constructing Complex Systems
Saad Nasser was 15 when he joined Ati Motors, but already he was an expert in constructing complex systems. After he left school, he designed a computer system with an Intel mentor before Vinay took over his mentorship.
“Autonomy was really important, as there is plenty of integration work to be done across many fields,” said Nasser. “It’s all about combining hardware systems with the software on top,” he said. This also meant that the LIDAR was lower and that algorithms had to compensate for navigation.
This year Sherpa’s launch at Chennai was a huge achievement before coronavirus stopped it abruptly. The start-up, however, attracts inquiries from international markets like California and aims to split up internationally. In the meantime, in hospital halls, it must find its way.