What do you get when a bunch of engineering graduates who are robotic enthusiasts combine with faculty members with acknowledged expertise in their field with the backing of a premier engineering and technological institution?

In this instance, the answer is straightforward: Planys Technologies. A company started by IIT Madras alumni with two faculty members, both experts in non-destructive testing (NDT), and incubated at the institute.

Planys has built a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), or an underwater robot in simple terms, which it has started using for industrial clients to test their underwater structures. The ROV is meant to be used in shallow waters. That, the NDT expertise that is built into and the analysis that can be done gives the founders the confidence that they have got a world-beater of a product.

Focus on two sectors

According to Tanuj Jhunjhunwala, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, Planys Technologies Pvt Ltd, there was enough buzz in industrial circles when the venture unveiled a prototype, especially in the oil and gas and shipping sectors, as this was a new concept to them. Apart from Tanuj, Planys’ founders include Vineet Upadhyay, an IIT Madras alumnus, and Krishnan Balasubramanian and Prabhu Rajagopal, both faculty members in IIT-M and experts in the field of NDT. Besides these, the core team has Rakesh Sirikonda, Pulkit Agarwal, Sohan Jawale and Sanchit Gupta, all alumni of IIT-M.

The founders bootstrapped the venture and decided to focus on just two sectors. Christened Mike, the ROV is robust enough to be used in more sectors after some adaptation. According to Tanuj, industry has been quick to accept the robot because they were using human divers to do these jobs. Using humans came with its own set of problems – safety of the drivers and limitation on the depth to which they could go to.

Fishing harbour

The robot has been entirely designed by the team and tested out at the fishing harbour to the north of Chennai. Mike is compact and weighs about 30 kg that it can be deployed by a two-man crew, unlike robots available in the West that weigh a few tonnes and require a 20-foot container to be transported from one place to another. “Currently, we are doing jobs, both commercial and pilots for end users,” says Tanuj. Planys will deploy the robot at the client’s location and charge a fee for the service provided, which includes providing detailed analysis.

Tanuj, who did a dual degree programme – a BTech in mechanical engineering and a Master’s in product design – worked in the R&D division of an automobile company in Maharashtra for a short while, before coming back to Chennai to set up Planys in 2014.

Greater versatility

Mike can be operated in depths up to 100 m – what is called shallow water testing – and, says Tanuj, “it has been validated, clients are really happy and we are getting calls for more jobs now.” Planys, which in Greek means ‘rover’, has started working on developing another robot that can go up to 200-250 m, giving it even greater versatility and capability. Tanuj sounds confident that Planys will hold its own against competition, both domestic and international, simply because it tested out and overcame most of the problems in the first year with the prototype. The most basic problem was waterproofing the submersible vehicle, which the venture sorted out in the first year itself, he says.

Limited bandwidth

Planys, according to him, has started earning revenues. The team is small, its bandwidth is limited, but the venture will really take off in the next few months.

It recently raised an angel round of funding from Keiretsu Forum, a US-headquartered global angel network. That money is being used to expand the fleet of vehicles and strengthen the team. Tanuj is 24 years old and the other alumni of IIT in the team are the same age or a year older.

According to Krishnan Balasubramanian, professor of Mechanical Engineering at IIT-M, a number of ports are looking to understand what is happening under water, how the structures are behaving. “The key thing is in shallow waters there are limited technologies available,” he says.

Huge market

He says the venture is unique in that it has built a stable and reliable vehicle; it is building some technologies, including SONAR and 3D positioning, that will make the ROVs better than what is available off-the-shelf. Both Balasubramanian and Prabhu Rajagopal, Associate Professor at IIT-M and a director on the board of Planys, believe that there is a huge market for underwater testing in shallow waters outside of India.

The business volume will depend upon the number of applications they are able to master, they say. “Worldwide, there is tremendous potential, but in the neighbourhood we are in, the competition is almost nil,” Balasubramanian says. It can be used in nuclear power plants to study the radiation levels under water and in thermal power to test out submerged structures.

Prabhu adds that it is constant learning for the venture. “Every time we learn a lesson, we go back to the drawing board, make some changes and then, hopefully, we will overcome many of these.”