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The innovators
Afghan era of robotics

Masood Momin
From cheap fridges to drones and orthopedic devices, scientists in Kabul defy funding hurdles and address the country's technological needs. Their latest invention is Smart Tank, a robot created by students from…
6.06.2014  |  Kabul
نمونه یی از روبات ساخته شده
نمونه یی از روبات ساخته شده

It looks like a miniature combat vehicle, hydraulics and wires exposed and welded to plain metal discs. It is, in fact, a mine-detecting robot created by computer science students at the Polytechnic University in Kabul. “The robots can be controlled both automatically and manually and are installed with sensors,” says Tahmina Jalal Hashimi, 21, one of four students who created the robot--called Smart Tank--at the Kabul-based campus.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the Faculty of Electro-Mechanics and the sub-department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics has continued to grow.  “In 2012, eleven students graduated from this department for the first time,” says Aziz Rahmaty, head of the department.

Home-built robots

The course combines software and hardware engineering theory with practical experience. “Students receive training in ways to build robots. For the future, we plan to develop automatic doors and stairs for the Afghanistan National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Ministry of Interior Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, and the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology. This would allow our students to get jobs in these institutions,” adds Rahmaty.

Smart Tank is equipped with censors, a microchip and an engine and can detect and neutralize hazardous objects, including mines. The tank navigates along pre-programmed paths but can also be equipped with a radar, say its creators. The information it gathers is then relayed and stored on servers.

“We wanted to put our knowledge and education to use and build a robot,” says Shah Hussein Mohammadi, 23, another of Smart Tank’s creators, emphasizing that the current robot is still in prototype stage. “Smart Tank is only a laboratory sample. If the government of Afghanistan provides us with more opportunities, we can further develop it.”

The project was a testing space for the students on campus, but it has already attracted the attention of the government. “Recently, we received a proposal to develop Smart Tank from the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology. But due to the election, we could not start our work,” says Ahmah Majidi, who played an active role in Smart Tank's construction.

Aside from the country's changing political environment, the students had to overcome financial challenges. According to Tahmina Hashimi, the only woman and the youngest in the group of young innovators, the students purchased the sensors from Canada with their own money for 20,000 afghani (345 US dollars approx).

Stuck in transit

Professor Rahmaty says the equipment was provided by Ankara University under a NATO deal to equip the Kabul Polytechnic University’s mechanics department. But “dysfunctional bureaucracies” at the Ministry of Higher Education in Afghanistan and at Ankara University in Turkey delayed delivery of the pledged robotic components, according to Rahmaty. The passage of goods was further complicated by difficulties at customs, which meant students were forced to cover some costs themselves.

“Although we had the equipment at customs in Kabul, our students had to buy equipment for robots from Canada and other countries out of their own pockets,” Professor Rahmaty told Afghanistan Today. The head of the mechanics department added that his students could serve the nation in many ways if they receive support. “If we are provided with opportunities, we will be able to build missile, rocket and radar systems,” says Rahmaty.

Lots of innovators, few funds

Smart Tank is only the latest in a series of  technical innovations hatched in Afghanistan. Two years ago, a man in Helmand started making affordable cooling devices. Rajib Andeshmand, one of Afghanistan’s most established inventors, has created a drone, a digger and a traffic safety device at various stages in his career. Last year an Afghan doctor, Mohammad Ismael Wardak, created Afghan Device, a healing tool to treat knee and elbow fractures. Very few Afghan inventors however receive government support, a fact that robotics professor Rahmaty laments. “Designing a real system for a robot requires a lot of money and a strong team,” says Rahmaty. He is happy, nevertheless, with his department's journey to the frontiers of homegrown research. “We have taken the initial steps for building robots in Afghanistan,” he says.

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The innovators
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