Kerala startup finds robotic solution to end sewer cleaning deaths
Manual scavenging, an abominable practice that claims several lives across the country every year, could soon be a thing of the past with a group of young engineers from Kerala developing a robot to do the sewage cleaning job.
The Kerala Water Authority that manages the sewage department in the state has already placed orders for 50 robots, christened as Bandicoot.
To market their invention, the young engineers have started a startup called ‘Genrobotics’. After receiving patent for the robot from India, the company has now applied for the world patent, applicable in 150 countries.
Manual scavenging is a caste-based occupation mainly involving cleaning septic tanks, sewers and gutters.
Despite legal bans, the dehumanising practice continues in the country. According to one estimate more than 1200 people died from manual scavenging related activities between 2014 and 2016 in the country.
The start-up claims the Bandicoot is the tech solution to the social malaise. Genrobotics says it will go global only after “fixing the country’s nagging problem.”
Apart from sewer lines the robots can also be pressed into service for other under-water activities.
Death of three sewage workers on the outskirts of Bangalure two years ago prompted the young techies to think something out of the box to tackle the problem, which is often being called India’s shame, said Vimal Govind, the 24-year-old CEO of Genrobotics. Govind is a mechanical engineer.
“I worked more than one year in the TCS to earn some money to fund the stage one of the project. We all nine classmates of MES Engineering College in Kuttipuram came around quickly and developed the first prototype in six months,” added Rashid K, a software engineer.
Initially they struggled to find fund for the project, but now they say money is pouring in from different sources.
Manufacturing cost of the machine is somewhere between Rs 3lakh and Rs 5 lakh, Rashid said. Their machine weighs 80kg but the main operating part that goes into the hole weighs only 30 kg.
Once installed atop a clogged sewage line, a wire carrying camera goes inside the hole and beams pictures of the problem on the screen atop.
After gauging the problem, the robot dismantles itself from the main machine and goes into the hole taking tools such as a shovel or a jet pipe, depending on the magnitude of the problem, and cleans the system.
Young scientists claim a robot can manage three workers’ three-hour schedule in 30 minutes.
To operate the machine, the Genrobotics wants to engage manual scavengers so that they don’t become jobless.
“Even a small boy can operate our system. We will train these workers. It is their product. We are planning to move a proposal under the Prime Minister’s flagship Swachh Bharat scheme to train them,” said Govind, who recently visited Taiwan for a presentation.
“Our guiding spirit is our former President A P J Abdul Kalam. He always used to say dream, dream. The young India is committed to fulfil his dream of becoming a fully developed nation sans hunger and strife,” said Jaleesh, another member of the team.
He said talks are on to produce these machines commercially.
Kerala’s IT department, which is the first in the country to formulate a start-up policy is upbeat over the achievement of the youngsters.
“The noble product shows social commitment of these youngsters. Many firms including the BPCL promised help to take their innovation to the next stage,” said state IT Secretary M Sivasankar.
In an international conference conducted recently by the American Society of Research, out of 13 papers submitted, a paper on Bandicoot was selected as the best.
The paper was published in the International Journal of Mechanical Engineering and Robotics Research.