One month in India

So I’ve been in India for a month, and I have to admit that this place has it’s own way of getting on my nerves. These days I’ve been rather pissed of by so many things that my project supervisors got worried and tried to understand what was going wrong to try to fix the problem. So I tried to make a list of what was annoying me, and then finding out what annoyed me most. I’ll have to make a post when I’ll have sorted out my most important annoyances. But most of the things on the list are things that can’t be changed.
Guys, if you’re up to fixing gender inequality in your country that’s one thing very high on my list!

The Ashram

I made some very good friends in the Ashram on my first week there. They introduced me to more people, and some of them just seemed to pop up whenever I needed help.

They always laughed at me for not knowing what this place was when I first got here, and said that when they would come back they would find me with a dot on my forehead, in a white sari, running after Amma.

The Kali temple, first thing I saw when arriving at the Ashram at 3am. I didn't bother trying to understand what was going on yet.
The Kali temple, first thing I saw when arriving at the Ashram at 3am. I didn’t bother trying to understand what was going on yet.

So what is an ashram? It is kind of like a Western monastery, a place where devotees live close to their guru and where people come for spiritual practise and teachings. Here, the guru is called Amma, which means mother in Malayalam, the local language (and also a palindrome). I only knew Amma as “the chancellor of our university and spiritual guide” before arriving here, I didn’t expect 50k people showing up for her birthday a fortnight after my arrival!

The Ashram where I live in India
The Ashram where I live in India

Our Ashram is located in between the Arabian Sea and the Kerala backwaters in southern India, a couple of crazy taxi hours south of Kochi. When Amma is here, there are up to 2000 residents. The people living here do Seva, selfless service for 2-6 hours a day and this is what keeps the place running. As students, our internship is kind of considered as a seva so we are not expected to do any more work.

The Ashram day starts with a Puja before breakfast, a religious ritual honouring Amma, and ends with bhajans, some devotional songs before dinner (which do get me very annoyed because all I want at 8pm is food, not some weird singing). When Amma is here, she guides meditation on the beach twice a week and spends hours giving darshan (read: free hugs). In between, people do meditation, yoga, seva, and whatever they please.

The university – AMMACHI Labs

The engineering building of the university, casually lit up for Amma's birthday.
The engineering building of the university, casually lit up for Amma’s birthday.

Amrita University is the number one private university in India and in other places like South Asia or BRICS according to various rankings. I came here for their humanitarian robotics lab called AMMACHI. More about my project and the lab on this page.

Daily routine

Once I got introduced to my lab, and got to understand how the place works, I got into a kind of routine that doesn’t change that much from one day to the other.

7:30am: I wake up and do some yoga routine and/or “I am” meditation practice that I have learnt here.

9am: I go for either Indian breakfast (yay, curry!) or “Western” breakfast (Ragi/millet pancake with bananas or cake or toast) when I’m early enough

9:30am: Our working day starts at the lab, and I get my brain working hard on designing my rice planting machine. I meet my friend and colleague Aymeric who is from EPFL too and enrolled in the same program.

12:30pm: Lunch time, we have curry (how surprising!) served in huge metallic plates (we wash them before and after eating), and we eat with our hands. My right hand always feels “spicy” after eating like this. Most students eat separately: girls on one side and boys on the other. Even the plate-washing is separate-gender.

1pm: Aymeric and I go for a nap, then back to work at 1:30pm

5:30pm: End of our working day. I would either hang around in the lab for wifi or go back to the ashram and read, do yoga, play the ukulele, eat, nap, meditate, watch the sunset, or a combination of all of that. Maybe one day I’ll get to enjoy the bhajan songs but not yet.

8:15pm: Dinner time, guess what we’re having? Yeah, curry! We sometimes eat at the student’s mass (canteen) which usually has good food, but except on days off it is separate genders. So we eat at the general canteen and the food is not as good but at least we have friends to share our meal with. Sometimes we indulge in western food and go for a veggie burger for the horrendous amount of money of about 70cts. Very expensive for India.

9pm: We have tulsi (holy basil) tea and cake for desert and spend hours talking about sometimes normal things but usually weird spiritual stuff. Here come energy, vibrations, magnetism, fairies and demons, people coming from other planets etc. These discussions usually last late into the night and blow my mind every time. I’m not as crazy as these people but I’m slowly getting there.

 * * *

In my daily life there are also pigeons entering my room and shitting on my belongings when I forget to close the window, trails of ants across my room, voracious mosquitoes that love my exotic blood, geckos all over the place and rats loving my peanuts. My room is a zoo.
There is red tap water staining everything, drinking water available at some places in the ashram (pfew, no need to buy plastic every day!), crows eating our unattended western meals, daily power cuts and dogs and kids in the lab.

Usually the evenings are cool enough to be comfortable and the days are too damn hot for me. Especially with the Indian “modest” clothing. I have to cover my legs, my chest and bottom have to be covered with at least two layers of fabric. No wonder I’m hot! Meanwhile, guys are free to bumble around in their mini-skirts dhoti folded up above their knees.

curry eaten with hands
A typical meal: rice, curry and chapatis (but with biriyani rice instead of plain white rice, a treat !) eaten with my hands.
Slowly getting to understand Indian fashion: your shawl has to match your trousers.
Slowly getting to understand Indian fashion: your shawl has to match your trousers.
chloe in her PJ's
That day I showed up at uni in my PJ’s, because nobody told me that beautiful dress I just bought was a nightie.
Yoga daily practise, even more fun with friends!
Yoga daily practise, even more fun with friends!
Hari, the lovely guy from the coconut stall which will welcome you in your own language, whatever it is.
Because in Kerala the sky and sea compete in producing the most beautiful lights: bioluminescent waves.
Because in Kerala the sky and sea compete in producing the most beautiful lights: bioluminescent waves.

Spiritual Journey

My first week was kind of hectic, trying to understand what the hell is going on in this place that is actually not just an university as I first thought it would be. Luckily, my friends helped me understand who is Amma, why they are here and why I arrived here. It was easy to just think that everyone here is crazy, but then I realised that all these crazy people were telling the same stories. Maybe I’m the crazy one here. So here begun my spiritual journey. As my nutcase friends tell me, I’m here for a reason.

These guys welcomed me in the Ashram as a family and really helped me through my first weeks there.
These guys welcomed me in the Ashram as a family and really helped me through my first weeks there.

The first step was understanding who is Amma. I get it like she is Jesus, or God, or something like that. I watched a movie about her early years in life, and it way showing that she has always been connected to God (Krishna for her), then started helping many people in her village until doing a miracle and being recognised as someone very special. Now she has hundreds of thousands of followers who go all crazy about their guru and sing devotional songs and wash her feet and run after her when she walks around.

Every evening after dinner, I hang around the “Western Cafe” where there is always someone interesting to meet, and makes up most of my spiritual instruction. People talk about energy, different dimensions, the vibrational energy of this place (apparently high) and angels. The most interesting is that all the people I meet say the same kind of things. I guess they’re all connected to the same spiritual dimension.

I compare my mind to a monkey in its monkey tree. My monkey is very happy on its branch. It doesn’t know if anything else exists in the monkey tree. But one day, the leaves get blown off the monkey tree, and my monkey suddenly realises there are many higher branches where other monkey seem to be very high.
These high monkeys are my new friends, and they’re teaching me how to reach a higher consciousness in the spiritual monkey tree.

With my daily yoga and meditation practise, I am starting to open up and feel things, like energy in my hands and a vast nice emptiness when my monkey mind dares shutting up in meditation. I keep having “deja-vu” and having flashes of dreams I have had years ago. Everything is so new to me, and I don’t understand much of it.
But I’m slowly getting to understand that maybe there is another dimension that my scientific mind doesn’t want to accept, maybe I will end up like my friends said, as a crazy devotee running after Amma in 2 months. See you then!

Giving a hand

With the Cybathlon going on, showcasing the cutting-edge prosthetic technologies, I couldn’t help thinking about the low-cost available options when I met a kid with several limb differences in my project village in India. What if we could (litterally) give him a hand?


The e-NABLE community has been designing, printing and fitting hands and arms for children with upper limb differences. So far, they have solutions for hand- differences (missing fingers, functional wrist) and forearms (no functional wrist, functional elbow).  All of the prosthetics are open-source so that anyone can print their own and edit the design, allowing constant improvement and adaptability.

Isabella design:
Isabella design: “This device was created for those that have a functional elbow and a considerable amount of forearm but no wrist or not enough wrist/palm to power a wrist driven device.”

Here is a webpage listing all their released designs.


The UnLimbited Isabella and Alfie designs have fingers powered by elbow motion. If the bearer of the prosthetic bends their elbow, the fingers will close, enabling them to grasp objects.

The prosthetic is printed in PLA to allow thermoforming, and is fully scalable to be adapted to the recipient.

UnLimbited Alfie prosthetic fitted to a happy girl.
UnLimbited Alfie prosthetic fitted to a very happy girl, Sophia. Picture from Thingiverse.

Source files on Thingiverse

Look at those smiles when they try their new arms on for the first time!

3D-printed hands

Before learning about the 3D-printed arms, I knew about the Robohand initiative and 3D-printed hands. Here are some designs:

Cyborg Beast

Cyborg Beast 3D-printed hand from Thingiverse
Cyborg Beast 3D-printed hand from Thingiverse

Basic Robohand

Basic Robohand design from Thingiverse
Basic Robohand design from Thingiverse

DR2: Cycling in Mud

Those who know I’m crazy about bikes might also know that before starting my engineering studies, all I did was cycling around and rolling myself in mud in mountain biking competitions. I have some very fond memories of a French Cup race where there was so much mud people would slide down the slopes on their backsides. Now that is what I call mountain biking!

Sliding down hills of your bike is one thing, but how do people actually ride through mud? With the right technical equipment and some driving skills it is possible to race through mud fields. Lets analyse how the champions do it!

Riding through mud

See, those who go furthest usually have high rpm, and go as straight as possible. The bike has narrow tyres with high spikes to avoid building up mud. They shift their weight to the back of the bike to have more traction.

For those who fail, they will most likely get their front wheel stuck of slide on their sides. Some unfortunate riders will get their bikes stopped by mud blocking the wheels in v-brakes or frame.

If this kid can ride his bike through that clay puddle, than certainly we could get a bike tractor through a rice field, couldn’t we?

The physics behind it

Estimation of cycling power

Power is the rate at which energy is used (energy over time) and is measured in watts. In cycling, energy is expressed in terms of work (such as how hard you have to work to ascend a climb). It’s a constant snapshot of your work rate at any given moment. […] A better measure, especially on climbs, is watts produced per kilogram of body weight.
How much better are Tour riders than the rest of us? A contender for the overall classification can produce just above 6 w/Kg on major climbs of the race. By comparison, a domestic pro could manage a best of 5-5.5w/Kg; a good, competitive amateur or masters’ racer can put out around 4w/Kg and an untrained person would struggle to produce 2.5w/Kg.



Design Research: Pedal-Powered Tractors

When speaking about agriculture mechanisation, we immediately thing about huge tractors, pumping up oil and spreading loads of bad chemicals on the fields.
Some farmers have taken the problem the other way around, and instead of relying on heavy machinery for light operations, they started building their own machines, powered by humans, not petrol. I have listed the farm hackers I’ve found on this post.

If you drive a car, you’re dragging a lump of metal that probably weighs 10–20 times as much as you do wherever you go. What a waste of energy! Go by bike and the metal you have to move around with you is more like 6–9kg for a lightweight racing bike or 11–20kg for a mountain bike or tourer, which is a fraction of your own weight. Better efficiency means you can further on the same amount of fuel. According to the classic Bicycling Science book by David Gordon Wilson et al: “A racing bicyclist at 32km/h (20mph) could travel more than 574 kilometers per liter (1,350 miles per US gallon) if there were a liquid food with the energy content of gasoline.” Explain That Stuff

The Culticycle

Farmers from the Farmhack community have developed this pedal-powered tractor to reduce the usage of their tractors. It is built out of bike parts and standard metal pieces, and features a belly-mount for interchangeable cultivating implements (weeder, seeder, etc.)

The Culticycle, a pedal-powered tractor developed by Farmhack
The Culticycle, a pedal-powered tractor developed by Farmhack
Description: A pedal powered tractor for cultivation and seeding, built from readily available lawn tractor, ATV, and bicycle parts. Speed is 3 – 4 mph depending on choice of gearing and pedaling speed. Better for operator’s body, less soil compaction, no fuel use, cheaper than a tractor; easily adaptable to specific needs

Problem Statement/ Functional Need: Cultivation only requires the movement of small amounts of soil, therefore very little power output. Small tractors are hard on the body of the farmer, cause soil compaction, cost large amounts of money, are complicated to fix, and provide significantly more power than is needed for many seeding and cultivating jobs. Cultivation with a pedal powered machine provides sufficient power, a less physically damaging experience for the operator, and is more environmentally sustainable.

The Aggrozouk – previously known as Bicitractor

The Aggrozouk has been developed by the French-speaking collective of farmers l’Atelier Paysan, who develop tools for organic farming. The machine has been further developed during the POC21 eco innovation camp. They held a prototyping workshop in early 2016 so that the farmers could build their own Aggrozouk tractor while learning the skills to repair and upgrade it.

The Aggrozouk pedal-powered tractor with electrical assistance
The Aggrozouk pedal-powered tractor with electrical assistance

PR6: Open-source and robots for agriculture

Open-source Agricultural Projects and Hackerspaces

La notion de brevet, donc de notre point de vue de confiscation au profit d’individus ou de groupes, est contraire à notre volonté de contribuer à la production et la diffusion de Biens Communs. Nous estimons que la créativité est histoire de cheminements, d’influences, de rencontres, de glanages, bref, par essence d’une richesse collective, humaine, d’un génie créatif que nous avons choisi de ne pas garder pour nous. Toutes nos réalisations sont donc diffusées sous licence libre, pour une libre adaptation, pour que les machines et matériels soient vivants, appropriés et appropriables. L’Atelier Paysan

Aggrozouk/Bicitractor pedal powered tractor with electrical assistance
Aggrozouk/Bicitractor pedal-powered tractor with electrical assistance

L’Atelier Paysan: building open-source farm machinery for organic farmers, developers of the Bicitractor/Aggrozouk pedal-powered tractor with electrical assistance

TechAguru: building small-scale open-source solutions in the Philippines to bring precision agriculture to farmers.

Hacker Farm: Japanese countryside farm and hackerspace, have a project on rice paddy water level monitoring.

Farm Hack: Worldwide community of farmers that build their own agricultural machinery, famous for Culticycle pedal powered tractor

Good Tech: Community of makers testing prototypes in a realistic environment. Accelerator program for “bringing sustainable tech into mainstream“.

Fietswieders: “a lowtech agricultural machinery, based on open source to make the life of (organic) farmers more fun!” by Dutch community, using bicycles to make machines suited for work lying in prone position (facing the ground).

Obviously better technology will only make a difference if it´s actually used by many people. Therefore scaling new products is a key aspect of what we do. GoodTech

Culticycle pedal-powered tractor
Culticycle pedal-powered tractor

Small Farming Robots

For decades, farm machinery has targeted industrial-sized farmers, underpinning the “get big or get out” ag model of consolidation. Now, the miniaturization of farm machinery may be the ag-tech counter-trend that actually encourages smaller, more diverse farms.

Weeding robot Naio
Weeding robot Naio

Even in poorer nations, farm labor is not always available, as people are flocking to cities in increasing numbers. Which brings us to HelloTractor. Calling itself the Uber of Farm Machinery, this startup based in Washington, DC and Nairobi, Kenya, allows farmers to request farm machinery, just as you might “hail” a car with Uber. HelloTractor’s delivery system is tied to its own small, smart tractors, which monitor usage and location for the security of the owner. Owners can help offset the cost of their purchase by renting it out. And because labor shortages on farms can lead to poor harvests and lost income, the wider availability of these size-appropriate machines can help whole communities grow.

Yes, big machines may have allowed a single person to farm miles of land. But they also created farms low on diversity. Small machines could not only help large farms to become more diverse and ecologically sound, they can be a huge help to small, diversely planted farms that suffer from too little machine solutions to help them. Source

Rowbot: robots for small-scale agriculture in corn farming

Agribotix: Drones for agriculture

Naio: robots for small-scale agriculture

Prospero: agricultural hexapod robot prototype, designed to work in swarms