[Techie Tuesday] The need for autonomous technologies in India

Through collaborative intelligence, humans and autonomous technologies could play an active role in developing systems capable of solving some of the most complex social and economic problems faced by India and other developing countries.
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Autonomous technology is focused on enhancing automated mechanisms with smart innovations to empower systems to make decisions independently. A simple example of automation is garden sprinklers. The sprinklers are programmed to water the plants at a fixed time every day.

Now imagine a sprinkler system that can measure the moisture in the soil with sensors and water the plants accordingly. This is autonomous technology – it adds another dimension to an automated ecosystem.

An autonomous system is powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and analytical capabilities to make independent, accurate decisions based on collected data.

Applications in India

In 2017, Mahindra & Mahindra showcased its first-ever driverless tractor, making it a pioneer in the sector. The tractor aims to increase food production in response to growing food scarcity in India and across the world. Still on its way to farms, the tractor is a good example of autonomous technologies and their application.

It could solve several challenges faced by farmers and allied sectors. Technology that enables farmers to produce more in less time is enough to solve several crises around famine, the agricultural economy, and sustainability.

Following the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2021, NewSpace Research & Technologies Pvt Ltd (NRT) and SpiceXpress, a cargo division of Spicejet, signed an MoU to develop a new line up of ‘SpiceXpress’ Drone Delivery Service.

NRT planned to develop an HL-150 UAV that can carry a 150 kg payload over a distance of 150 km, along with a fleet of drones with different payloads, which can potentially revolutionise supply chains.

Resilient and sustainable technologies such as these can empower government administrations to facilitate food produce to famine impacted regions, deliver life-saving drugs and essential goods to some of the remotest regions in India which are otherwise difficult to access.

There is a massive opportunity for autonomous players in India, considering the current scenario which calls for smarter solutions, especially for transport and logistics.

Recent disruptions by startups is a positive sign of India’s AV ecosystem and its future. For instance, Tata Elxsi created AutonomAI to accelerate programs for AVs and Intel decided to gather data on traffic patterns to create algorithms for autonomous driving in India and overseas.

Similarly, several AV startups such as Swaayatt Robots (2015), AutoNxt (2016), Ati Motors and Flux Auto (2017), Flo Mobility (2019), Minus Zero (2020), and many more have emerged in the last few years. This offers a glimpse into the future of application of autonomous technologies in India.

The challenges

There are several players like Mahindra & Mahindra and emerging startups capable of disrupting the autonomous technologies market. However, India is still a long way from building and leveraging such technologies to solve societal and economic problems.

For instance, countries like the US are getting ready to commercialise autonomous vehicles, whereas India is staring at a long road ahead. This is because we still need policy decisions that enable the reduction of infrastructure, logistics, and research and development costs.

There is also the fear of job losses caused by driverless cars. Furthermore, ethics is another area of debate when it comes to AI-led systems.

Overcoming socio-economic challenges

Autonomous technologies have the potential to address several social and economic problems.

Agriculture is an important sector as it accounts for 17 percent of the GDP and provides employment to over 60 percent of the population. Low yield – India’s farm yields are 30 percent to 50 percent lower than that of developed nations – is among the biggest issues faced by the sector.

Small farm size, poor infrastructure, inadequate use of farm technologies, decreasing soil fertility due to overfertilisation and sustained pesticide use are the leading contributors to the problem.

Autonomous technologies such as driverless tractors can solve several of these issues. They enable farmers to increase production in lesser time and space and reduce labour requirements and costs. Similarly, autonomous irrigation, weeding, and spraying of pesticides will improve efficiency.

For instance, an autonomous system that sprays pesticides on leaves with precision to avoid runoffs in the soil would reduce ground pollution and protect humans from exposure.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the underlying problems in India's healthcare system surfaced. The system battled issues such as scarcity of hospitals and beds, poor infrastructure and lack of skilled professionals.

During such times, robotic systems can be used to gather patient data and suggest primary diagnosis. They can also protect doctors and healthcare professionals from contracting infectious diseases by navigating a quarantine zone to monitor patients and provide the necessary assistance.

During the onset of the pandemic, we also witnessed a rapid rise in demand for CT scans and radiology services to detect severity and effect of coronavirus on lungs. India already faces challenges with a very low doctor-patient ratio and even lower radiologist-patient ratio (one radiologist for every one lakh people). And in this time of need, one critical way to scale and match the demand for radiology, is to use AI.

Another major worry India faces is road safety. Estimates suggest 80 percent of car crashes are due to human error. Self-driving cars could eliminate the possibility of human error and reduce the number of accidents.

Driverless cars can help reduce traffic by taking less congested routes through vehicle-to-vehicle communication. Also, 30 percent of driving licences issued in India are fake, which makes traffic conditions worse. Autonomous cars could be the answer.

Most driverless cars are going to be electric vehicles, which will decrease pollution. These cars could also prove to be a safer means of transport – not just in terms of fewer accidents but also for women who need to travel at odd hours and fear for their safety. If driverless cars are allowed in India, they could be used for a variety of other purposes such as deliveries or pickups, saving time and labour.

Beyond agriculture, healthcare, and mobility, autonomous technologies have the potential to aid India’s mission to build smart cities and enhance infrastructure to boost commerce, improve logistics, and strengthen supply chains.

Autonomous technologies can enrich human capabilities. These AI- and machine learning-led systems need humans to perform crucial roles, such as training machines to perform tasks; explaining the outcomes of those tasks, especially when the results are counter-intuitive or controversial; and sustaining the machines’ responsible use.

Say in case of a driverless vehicle’s test ride, the safety driver may intervene in the AV’s performance to make it smoother for the passengers.

For example, they can start applying brakes to avoid jerks for the passengers and add comfort to the drive. These are the kind of instances which help the ML system to identify moments where performance can be improved and make the driverless experience more effective.

While this is an on-road instance, the data that comes in from the test ride is also analysed by human experts, building an infinite loop of human and machine intelligence. This is the type of actual human and machine collaboration that is capable of making an AI-led system beneficial.

Through such collaborative intelligence, humans and autonomous technologies could play an active role in developing systems capable of solving some of the most complex social and economic problems faced by India and other developing countries.

Contrary to the scepticism, autonomous and other emerging technologies create opportunities to generate more jobs and give rise to disruptive businesses.

Edited by Megha Reddy

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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