Cities switching to robots to tackle water, sanitation issues
Indian cities are increasingly using AI-powered robots to tackle water and sanitation challenges. Robots are being deployed for tasks such as cleaning manholes, inspecting water pipelines for leaks, and clearing trash from water bodies. Start-ups led by young engineers are at the forefront of developing these robotic solutions. These robots offer sustainable solutions and eliminate the need for humans to work in highly hazardous environments. They also help improve the efficiency of water distribution networks and address water pollution issues. The use of robotics and AI in urban ecosystems is seen as transformative and has the potential to create autonomous cities in the future.
An increasing number of Indian cities are turning to artificial intelligence (AI)-powered robots to tackle many water and sanitation-related challenges, ranging from cleaning manholes and inspecting sprawling underground water pipeline networks for leaks to cleaning water bodies.
For instance, Nagpur, which initially rejected robotic scavengers three years ago, now wholeheartedly embraces them. Thane has incorporated robots for water storage tanks cleaning, while Mumbai deploys them to clean manholes and water bodies. Chennai is using robots for water pipeline inspections, and in Shillong, robots are being deployed to clear floating trash from the famous Umiam Lake. Start-ups led by young engineers are at the forefront of developing these cutting-edge robotic solutions.
“We have deployed three Bandicoot robots in the past 11 months, which have cleaned about 9,000 drainage chambers. These robots have emerged as a sustainable solution in our efforts to eliminate manual scavenging,” says Prithviraj BP, CEO, Nagpur Smart City, a special-purpose vehicle of Nagpur Municipal Corporation (NMC).
Bandicoot, a robot developed by Genrobotics, a Kerala-based award-winning start-up, harnesses the power of AI to clean manholes, eliminating the need for sanitation workers to expose themselves to highly hazardous environments. The robot is equipped with human-like arms and a range of gas sensors to identify and assess sewage conditions inside drainage chambers. But Nagpur is not the only city to have adopted it.
“Trivandrum was the first city to deploy our robots four years ago. Today, from Leh to Trivandrum, our robots are cleaning manholes in 200 cities across the country. Until a few years back, it was a challenge to convince authorities, but they became receptive post Covid-19 when cities confronted a severe crisis,” says Vimal Govind, co-founder, and CEO, of Genrobotics.
Robots are being deployed not just for cleaning manholes. The Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) has deployed them to address leakage issues within its aging water distribution network. “We were grappling with significant leakage issues in certain areas and urgently needed a solution to assess whether existing pipelines should be replaced. Manually identifying defects with precision was next to impossible,” says Thiru R Vijaikumar, an engineer with the CMWSSB.
Endobot, an AI-powered robot, solved the problem. It crawled inside the water pipelines in the area and helped identify contamination points, cracks, leaks, encrustations, and broken pipe walls.
“The data collected was processed and mapped using Swasth, our GIS-based platform, which provided a comprehensive understanding of the pipeline network’s condition. The findings revealed that there were many damaged pipelines throughout the network, with an average of 1 defect every 6 meters,” says Moinak Banerjee, co-founder, Solinas Integrity, an IIT Madras incubated climate-tech start-up.
“Our AI-powered robot can measure water flow, pressure, nature of leakage, and inclination of underground pipes. It eliminates the need to dig up roads, and repetitive inspections, helping reduce the cost of identifying the pipeline’s condition and corrective actions to improve the water distribution network’s efficiency,” adds Banerjee.
Asim Bhalero, the co-founder of Fluid Robotics, another company that provides solutions for water pollution and waste-water problems in cities, says that on average, most tier-1 cities have about 3,000 to 4,000km of wastewater pipelines, and some, like Delhi, have about 8000km of pipeline. “But 80% of the wastewater that leaves our homes and offices goes untreated, directly into water bodies or groundwater reserves, and it is largely because the pipeline network is highly underutilised due to leakages, with only 40 percentage of the sewage reaching the treatment plant,” he says.
Bhalero’s company collaborated with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to clean up Powai Lake. “Our robot equipped with AI-enabled cameras, ultrasound sensors, and lasers not only inspects pipelines for damage, such as cracks or faulty joints but also maps the entire pipeline network. We used this data to help BMC to intercept and redirect wastewater away from the lake,” he says.
Similarly, his company, which has helped cities such as Pune, Hyderabad, and Jaipur to inspect and map their pipeline network has found that 50% of urban drinking water is lost due to leakages in the distribution system, which in many cities, is over 100 years old. “It also does not help that most cities don’t have their underground pipeline infrastructure mapped, making it impossible for them to effectively manage their water infrastructure,” he says.
Clearbot is another start-up addressing the critical issue of water pollution. The eponymous robotic boat it has developed collects floating trash and removes hyacinths from water bodies. It has been deployed on a pilot basis in cities such as Shillong, Varanasi, and Bangalore. In Bangalore, for instance, it is currently deployed in the Jigani Industrial Area to clean the floating trash from the local lake. “In August, we conducted a pilot project in Shillong, clearing approximately 250 kg of trash from Umiam Lake in just three hours,” says Sidhant Gupta, co-founder, Clearbot.
The robotic boat takes a simple instruction — “go clean” — to initiate its process. It can detect various types of trash, avoid collisions with other boats, recharge itself using solar power, and even park autonomously. Moreover, it can transmit valuable data remotely, providing insights into the quantity and nature of the trash.
“Currently, Clearbot can collect approximately 80kg of trash in one hour. But we are about to launch a new version capable of collecting up to 200kg of trash per hour,” says Gupta.
Technological advances in robotics for smart cities have now inspired an entire field of research called Robot-City Interaction (RCI), where the integration of robots in urban ecosystems and how they can improve life is a major field of study.
Experts believe that robotics and AI have the transformative power to address diverse urban challenges and optimise city operations, paving the way for autonomous cities in the future.
Prabhu Rajagopal, a professor of mechanical engineering and Faculty in charge of the Centre for Innovation at IIT Madras, says that in the past few years, India has made significant progress in robotics and AI. “These innovations are primarily driven by start-ups that have devised a wide range of solutions that span from underwater robots designed to inspect river crossings and bridges to drones that can inspect skyscrapers in cities,” he says. “Robotic technologies are finding applications across sectors. I believe that in India, robots will take over most of the hazardous tasks,” says Rajagopal.