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Robots are crawling through India’s pipeline

Nov 16, 2022

NEW DELHI: Robots don’t need to know how to dance, or do black flips, or play chess against grandmasters to be useful. Sometimes simple tech with just the right capabilities can do wonders – like stopping rampant water pollution. 

India’s water bodies are in an abysmal condition. The sheer scale of the problem forced two California-based techies, Asim Bhalerao and Nidhi Jain, to give up their plush lives in the US six years ago and return to India and set up a robotics firm in Pune called Fluid Robotics.

One of the crucial problems they wanted to solve was related to the fact that municipalities did not know where any of their underground pipeline networks were, making it impossible to repair and maintain them effectively. “This was resulting in more than 80% of sewage that was generated in Indian cities being discharged into the environment untreated, impacting urban lakes, rivers, and coastlines,” says Bhalerao, noting that about 50 billion litres of raw sewage is discharged into the environment every single day in India. 

To map the pipelines and find which were being underutilised, Fluid Robotics’ engineering team built a robot equipped with AI-enabled cameras, ultrasound sensors, and lasers to map out the pipeline networks that run under our feet. Their approach caught the eye of the chief engineer of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM). “We presented our technology to MCGM and showcased how it could be deployed to quantify the pollution in Powai Lake, then gather the required data necessary for intercepting and diverting the wastewater to treatment plants for treatment and reuse. This approach of network/ infrastructure optimisation would help reduce pollution and increase treatment at a fraction of the cost compared to building new treatment capacity in Powai,” Bhalerao says. 

In the end, Fluid Robotics, which graduated from the Toilet Board Coalition’s accelerator programme, was able to identify and divert over 2 million litres a day (MLD) of untreated wastewater to existing sewage treatment plants (STPs). So far, the company has monitored over 1.3 billion litres of urban pollution across a dozen Indian cities, out of which about 800 MLD is now being diverted to existing treatment plants, through existing sewer pipelines. “The environmental, social, public health and economic impact is tremendous when you take this approach,” Bhalerao says. 

Another robotics firm making a sizable social impact is Kerala-based Genrobotic Innovations. The founders – Arun George, Rashid K, Vimal Govind MK, and Nikhil NP – had a simple reason to build robots – they wanted to end the horrible practice of manual scavenging. They were spurred to action after reading media reports of manual scavengers dying in manholes after inhaling toxic gases. 

They built what they call the Bandicoot robot. The second generation of the Bandicoot was launched in 2018 in the presence of UN general secretary Antonia Guterres. “The Bandicoot has been busy transforming manholes into roboholes ever since,” says George. 

The robotic scavenger, he says, is built using Genrobotic’s patented pneumatic technology and has two parts, a stand unit and a drone unit. The stand unit ensures stability when the drone unit dives into the manhole to identify and clear the blockage. The Bandicoot also has four human-like expandable and flexible hands with four degrees of freedom to go into the hole and perform functions like grabbing, shovelling and unblocking movements, and an integrated waste-collection bucket system to lift out the collected waste. 

The IP68 waterproof cameras mounted on the drone unit also provide a high-definition display that helps identify the substance blocking the passage. George says the Bandicoot is compatible with all standard manholes and even has add-on nano coating features as well as a ‘powder coating surface treatment process’ which enables the robot to perform in hazardous or corrosive sewerage environments for extended periods. 

So far, he says, they have empowered the lives of more than 1,700 workers and their families, in more than 17 states of India. 

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