Live-in-Lab: Rice Planting Machine

The program

*Update: find a report on manufacturing the Ricycle here!*

Program presented by EPFL: The Live-in-Labs have varied focus areas such as energy, water, healthcare, education, waste management, ICT, and skill building. Undergraduates and graduates students from EPFL, who would like to get an experiential learning opportunity, can go and spend two weeks to a semester in one of the live-in-labs in India. Students become part of the interdisciplinary team of students and faculty and each team is guided by a group of two to three faculty members. This gives an important opportunity since emerging countries have the largest opportunity for new ideas and innovative solutions.

I had met the director of the AMMACHI labs, Rao R. Bhavani, when she came to present Amrita university and Live-in-Labs programs at EPFL in October 2015. I was very interested in the programs, but couldn’t see how robotics would fit in. That is when she told me about the haptic (with force feedback) robots used for professional training of women. Robots, education and women empowerment? I’m in.

The Live-in-Labs program at Amrita University is offered jointly with CODEV EPFL, and institute for technology transfer and international collaboration with the South, IDM (Ingenieurs du Monde) a student organisation helping students to get internships in developing countries and YUVA, the student organisation for Indian students at EPFL.

After several meetings and numerous emails, my application had been accepted!

Below given is the overview of the project that has been allocated.  
Project Guide:  Dr. Raj Madhavan – Distinguished Visiting Faculty, Ammachi Labs   &    Founder and CEO of Humanitarian Robotics Technologies, USA
Project Title:  Robotics – to eliminate the drudgery in work in human intensive task areas in villages

Then I got to chose my subject from a list, and I chose to work in agriculture, for its necessity and wide application.

Project: Rice planting machine To design a low cost manually/semi automated machine to help farmers in Indian villages for planting rice saplings in the paddy field. The machine should be designed in such a way that it should follow the existing pattern of planting followed in India and should avoid the physical effort involved in the manual planting.
Scope: To make up a prototype and to conduct field trials
At first, I was disappointed not having a subject related to education. Then,  I realised it would be better for me to work in a different domain to widen my field (no pun intended) of expertise. I had some basic knowledge of small scale agriculture, having worked in organic farms with WWOOFing.
Three and a half months later, here I am, in Amrita University, doing my first research about the project!
Lookup my first findings on this post: Preliminary Research

21.09.16: Framework
Before being given any work and information about my project, I still knew that I wanted to make a machine that would be affordable, durable and adapted to the Indian women farmers. Here is the results of my research about appropriate technologies, permaculture and open-source agricultural projects.

23.09.16: Context
When working in a new country and new field of applications, I had to do some research about the culture surrounding India’s rice production. From the gigantic numbers of yield (almost a quarter of the world’s production) to the gender equality issues, here are my findings about the context.

26.09.2016: Traditional Processes
In the village, most of the agricultural work is done manually. However, because of people moving to cities, less labour workers are available, and the working conditions severely affects the workers’ health. To reduce the drudgery of rice transplanting by mechanising the task, it is necessary to understand how it is traditionally done so the technology can be adopted by rural farmers.

26.09.16: Existing machines for rice transplanting
I am working on something that already exists, so it is better to study what has been done, get some inspiration from what is working and analyse what causes problems.
Interestingly, when researching rice planting, traditional shows mostly women while mechanised almost always displays men. Have the machines been designed by men, for men?

30.09.16: System of Rice Intensification (SRI)
During the last decades, a set of methods have been developed for increasing rice farming yields while reducing inputs and impacts on the environment. SRI have been tested successfully in several parts of the world. However, the change from traditional farming and the lack of mechanisation limit the spread of SRI.

04.10.16: Open-source and Robots for Agriculture
With most of my research done, I am back to thinking about the design of my machine. Will it be walk-behind? Ride on? How many rows? So back to researching what already exists, but also what already exists in agriculture. If an open-source machine can be adapted to rice-planting, then it might be worth taking the exiting frame and work on this rather than invent a whole new machine.

07.10.16: Pedal-Powered Tractors
As the strongest muscles in the human body are the quadriceps, the most efficient way to harvest this power would be push on pedals rather than push on handles as in most conventional human-powered designs. Luckily, several farmer collectives have put online some open-source designs for machinery, especially two pedal-powered tractors described in the link above.

07.10.16: Cycling in Mud
The big difference between the crops where pedal-powered tractors were designed to operate and my paddy fields is a considerable amount of schloppy mud. Could we possibly pedal through it? I believe so.

09.11.16: Manufacture
We spent 4 days in a noisy and flashy workshop manufacturing the Ricycle. Most of the components were second-hand or made out of scrap or cheap materials. In the end, we had an almost functional tricycle but the transplanting system, that has to work with “Indian precision”, is another big deal.

Sunset sen from 5th floor window, with pink sky and coconut tree forest in the foreground
Sunset in Kerala

Carnets de Voyages (in French) : Mes premiers jours en Inde