Robot navigators of the deep seas

Payel Majumdar | Updated on March 10, 2018

Me and mine: Sampriti Bhattacharyya with her drone prototype

MIT researcher Sampriti Bhattacharyya has designed drones that work like ‘Google Maps for the ocean’

Seventy per cent of the world’s surface area is underwater, yet only five per cent of it is mapped. Sampriti Bhattacharyya, a 28-year-old PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is on a mission to fill this gap.

Her trusty aides in this are the drones she designed to detect radiation leakage at underwater nuclear reactors as part of her doctoral research. After a Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappeared on March 8, 2014, the young researcher came up with her idea — what she calls a “Google Maps for the ocean floor” — an autonomous, underwater ‘smart’ drone that functions as our eye on the vast ocean floors. With a bit of tweaking, her radiation detecting robots could now be deployed to map and scale the bottom of the sea.

Not just that, Bhattacharyya tapped into the entrepreneurial community on campus to market her drone. Hydroswarm, her company, which is eight months old, was kick-started with the $15,000 prize money she won during MIT’s 100 K Entrepreneurship competition (one of the largest student-run business plan competitions) in Harvard Business School. She also went on to win the $50,000 gold prize after beating over 2,500 start-ups at the MassChallenge Accelerator competition. In September 2015, she was the hardware alley wildcard winner at Techcrunch SF Disrupt, a technology entrepreneurship platform. CBInsights, a venture capitalist database, has declared Hydroswarm one of the top seven grant-funded robotics companies in the US.

It took about one-and-a-half years for Bhattacharyya to establish the company from conceptualisation. While commercial sale has not started yet (“We’re working with our customers at the moment, but it’s going to happen very soon”, she says), companies in the energy and defence sectors, including many from India, have already invested in it. The drones can also be used to monitor oceanic pollution.

The drone itself resembles a bright-yellow egg, the toy-like appearance belying its complex, avant-garde nature.

The number of drones in use can be increased depending on the nature and size of a mission, as also customised for specific requirements, Bhattacharyya says, over a Skype call. All the drones on a mission will be attached to a central station. The number of drones needed will also depend on the camera resolution of individual drones.

Having already tasted success as an entrepreneur, Bhattacharyya is however determined to complete her PhD before plunging fully into her start-up.

Bhattacharyya attributes her achievements to her interest in astrophysics, which paved her way for a Master’s in aerospace engineering from Ohio State University. A student of South Point, one of the better-known schools in Kolkata, she went on to pursue mechanical engineering from a little-known private college in Khidirpur, Kolkata. “What changed my trajectory from a small college to an internationally renowned school was the fact that I pursued my interest in astrophysics. I even got an internship with NASA,” she says.

Naturally, she is a strong advocate of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), asserting that despite the many gender imbalances in these fields, there are opportunities for the determined. The gender disparity is not unique to India, she argues. “Even in the US, in universities such as MIT, the gender ratio is far from ideal, especially at the higher levels, in hardcore fields of engineering such as mechanical engineering,” she says. Together with her friends she has started a non-profit called Lab X Foundation, which is dedicated to providing internship and study opportunities to kids in India. “We have thousands of students in India who are probably smarter than me, who do not have the option to go to top international schools because they do not have the required stamp from a good university, or the exposure they need. Hence, we could give them an opportunity to reach their maximum potential with hands-on experience and internship programmes that can help them grow, like it helped me,” Bhattacharyya signs off.

Published on February 26, 2016

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