Rewriting the manual

Vinson Kurian | Updated on March 09, 2020

Genrobotics’ Bandicoot device is entering manholes and cleaning sewers, ensuring that sanitation workers no longer have to manually clear blocks. In doing so, it has ensured that they live healthier, longer lives while continuing to keep India’s cities clean

“Working (in manholes) with my bare hands has caused me a lot of health problems, including a chronic skin disease,” says Sachin Yadav, who works for the Brihan Mumbai Corporation’s sewerage department. Up North, Sajjan Kumar, who makes a living cleaning manholes in Ludhiana, says it has become routine for him to drop down into the bowels of the city. He has grown inured to the stench and filth, but he knows it is taking a toll on his health. The story is no different in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, where sewage cleaners spend many hours of their lives descending into manholes to clear the sludge blocking sewers.

Yadav, Kumar and the sewage cleaners from Thanjavur are not exceptions. North, East, West or South, the same tragic story plays out every single day across India, even in this, the 21st Century. Thousands are engaged in the inhuman practice of cleaning sewers manually. They have uniforms, but serve on a different frontline, keeping millions of Indians safe every day by ensuring sewage does not flow out of manholes. These are acts of valour — it takes courage to lower yourself into human waste — but nobody notices these soldiers, especially when one of them dies in the line of duty, as many do.

In a written reply to the Lok Sabha on February 11, Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale admitted that six people have died every month in the past five years while cleaning sewers and septic tanks across India. The total number shot up almost 62 per cent from 68 in 2018 to 110 in 2019. Most manual scavengers don’t live beyond the age of 30, says the Anjani Mashelkar Foundation of Pune. Compounding their misery, social oppression and extreme exclusion are a part and parcel of daily life for these men and their families.

Robotics to the rescue

Given this reality, a pathbreaking invention by K Rashid, Vimal Govind, Nikhil NP and Arun George has proved a godsend for India’s manual scavengers. The four innovators, co-founders of Genrobotic Innovations, a Kerala-based start-up, have developed a device that does the jobs these cleaners have had to perform for generations. The youngsters have created a robot, dubbed ‘Bandicoot’, that can be lowered into manholes to remove the accumulated sludge and plastic waste that clogs manholes.

In doing so, Genrobotics has literally given manual scavengers in India a new lease of life. Bandicoot has eliminated the need for humans to enter manholes and submerge themselves in filth. It is helping eliminate deaths related to manhole cleaning. This life-changing innovation has bagged the Genrobotics team the BusinessLine Young Changemaker Award.

Born out of a tragedy

Genrobotics’ journey began following a tragedy in Kozhikode, Kerala, in 2015, says Rashid, the Chief Operating Officer. Three people, including two migrant labourers and a local Good Samaritan, had perished in a manhole during a cleaning operation. The tragedy prompted M Sivasankar, Kerala’s IT Secretary, to sound out the foursome, formerly students at the MES College of Engineering at Kuttipuram, Kozhikode, for a solution to the problem of manual scavenging.

Sivasankar had good reason to approach the four, who at the time were in corporate jobs. They had been passionate about robotics and had been working on exoskeleton technology — powered armour to assist in tasks involving manual labour — right from their engineering days. They had created a prototype of a robotic Iron Man suit in 2015, to ferry bulk material in the construction and defence sectors. The wearable prototype was displayed at various festivals and presented at a conference of the American Society of Research in Singapore.

In addition, Rashid, Vimal, Nikhil and Arun had co-authored papers on exoskeleton technology, which had been published in noted journals.

The team went on to design the next generation of the suit. However, they ran into that old hurdle all start-ups face: lack of funding. “There is a need for funding when it comes to manufacturing, prototyping, and testing. We didn’t get the money we needed to get the raw materials or create and test the product,” recalls Vimal, the Genrobotics CEO. They shelved the project and joined the IT workforce. But the Kozhikode incident a few months later brought them back together.

The challenge posed by Kerala’s IT Secretary sparked the four friends to plunge headlong into finding a solution to end manual scavenging. The spiritually oriented Vimal says he had overheard manual scavengers lamenting how God had reduced them to performing this lowly task. “I was shocked beyond words, and saddened at their plight. As engineers, we had a choice to intervene and change their lives for the better. When the Kerala government came looking for us, an opportunity presented itself.”

As a first step, the four friends launched a start-up in 2017 and christened it Genrobotics. The company’s goal would be to design and develop robotic solutions to address the most pressing social issues. Soon after, the challenges began. “Banks were, unsurprisingly, loath to fund us, and they had their own reasons,” says Rashid. Little by little, they managed to put together some financing. The Kerala State Start-up Mission pitched in with ₹10 lakh. Former Google India Managing Director and angel investor Rajan Anandan invested in the start-up. Later, the Kerala Financial Corporation, a State government undertaking, extended them a loan of ₹5 crore.

They plunged headlong into their research. But the task wasn’t easy: the team had to perform different kinds of tests, and initially worked with friends and college interns. Soon, they built a prototype, tested it, and followed up with the beta product, which was displayed in a few areas. Rashid gratefully recalls the early-stage mentoring, and support from Dr Saji Gopinath, CEO of the Kerala State Start-up Mission. At a later stage, renowned scientist and researcher Professor RA Mashelkar would also influence their work.

The Kerala Water Authority was the first public utility to officially deploy the Bandicoot, in Thiruvananthapuram, in 2018.

How it works

The Bandicoot is a combination of pneumatic and electric actuators that make it possible to safely clean manholes. The machine, which is equipped with high-resolution infrared (night-vision) cameras for live internal inspection, is sent down a manhole. A screen mounted on an external stand helps in guiding and controlling the robot as it clears the blockage. The entire operation is remotely controlled using a simple user interface. At no point does the operator need to enter the manhole.

Genrobotics calls this #MissionRobohole, which is about converting manholes into ‘roboholes’ — or replacing men with robots in manholes. It has kept the technology simple, so that anyone can operate the Bandicoot with a little training. They may no longer be going down manholes, but the manual scavengers are not out of jobs: they are busy helping operate the machine.

Says Yadav, the BMC worker: “The Bandicoot has made a big difference, making life that much easier. It is very easy to operate the robot machine. I was initially doubtful whether I would able to master the controls. But after training, I find it very easy.” Technology has not taken away his livelihood; it has only made it a safer livelihood.

Kumar from Punjab echoes Yadav’s sentiments: “Bandicoot’s camera shows me where the manhole/sewer lines are blocked and helps me remove the blockage. The robot has made a world of difference to me.” The workers in Thanjavur, too, are overjoyed at the change that Bandicoot has brought into their lives. “It’s a fantastic machine invented with a lot of care and love for us,” says one of them. Genrobotics could not hope for a more ringing endorsement.

Scaling up

The wide publicity that the robotic scavenger has received gradually began generating interest from other States. Genrobotics has deployed over 30 machines to date. The Bandicoot has wheeled its way into 10 States and may soon add four more to that list.

Orders have begun to come in and Genrobotics is looking to scale up. It has inked an agreement with Tata Brabo for bulk production of the Bandicoot machine. Brabo Robotics and Automation, owned by Tata Brabo, a 100 per cent subsidiary of Tata Motors, is India’s first indigenous robot manufacturing company. Genrobotics has been assigned an assembly line at the Pune shop-floor of Tata Motors. It plans to produce the first batch of five robots from there soon.

The co-founders showcased the technology to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in New Delhi in 2018. They have been feted at many prestigious events and platforms at home and abroad.

Genrobotics has since gone to Dubai and marked its presence internationally. Inasmuch as the optics go, it seems to have ticked all the right boxes. But escalating adoption of the technology is the challenge before the start-up now.

Lauding the founders for their path-breaking work, Dr Gopinath of the Kerala State Start-up Mission says Genrobotics has busted many a myth. In particular, it has shown that an ecosystem can play a facilitatory role in realising the aspirations and dreams of innovative youngsters. “As a technology start-up trying to solve a critical issue plaguing society and affecting lakhs of people, Genrobotics was able to develop and commercialise a product in a very short time, proving the critics of hardware start-ups wrong.”

The company is now working on more technologies in the sanitation sector. Among them is a device, based on the Internet of Things, to forecast flows in manholes and issue alerts. Another is a skyscraper-cleaning robot. Here, too, the aim is to minimise the human risk in these dangerous occupations. A third one is a product to prevent deaths from accidental falls into borewells. Last, but not the least, is a medical exoskeleton to provide lower-limb support to people undergoing physiotherapy and/or rehabilitation.

Genrobotics’ founders can take great pride in their work, especially in the Bandicoot. It has not yet been adopted on a mass scale, but they have proved that sewers do not need to be cleaned manually. In doing so, they have also shown that manual scavengers can live healthier, longer lives while continuing to help keep India’s cities clean.

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Published on March 09, 2020
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