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Last Updated Wednesday November 25 2020 02:27 PM IST

With robots in manholes, Kerala hopes to end manual scavenging | Video

Arjun R Krishnan
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Team Genrobotics Team Genrobotics with the pneumatic robot 'Bandicoot'. Photo: Genrobotics

It's robotics to the 'rescue' of mankind. Bandicoot, a pneumatic robot, can fling its arms down swollen manholes to scoop out filth. The robot, developed by Team Genrobotics, was launched by Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan in the state capital recently.

It is yet another first for Kerala as the state makes a giant stride in eliminating and ending the practice of manual scavenging. An estimated 1.8 lakh people work as manual scavengers in the country. The Safai Karamchari Aandolan says 1,670 people died in the country since 2014 at work in manholes and septic tanks.

The bandicoot robot was an idea in the minds of nine students of mechanical engineering students at MES College of Engineering, Malappuram in 2015. “All of us are passionate about robotics and we began exchanging ideas and the group called itself Genrobotics," says Vimal Govind, the CEO and chief product architect of Genrobotics.

After finishing college in 2016, they began to work on developing medical and industrial exoskeletons. But the dearth of funds forced them to split and work for different firms.

In 2017, the Kerala Startup Mission, a startup incubator launched by the state government, offered to fund their project. Finally, their robotics dream got wings once again and they regrouped soon.

Development of the robot

The Genrobotics team, which started working on robotics as part of campus projects, initially worked on a robotic suit that would help lift heavy objects. It was the guidance of the State government's Entrepreneurship Development Cell that turned their attention to using robotics for scavenging."We spent a few weeks studying manual scavenging in various cities. It was the direct experience of watching people go about the task that made us work on this earnestly," Vimal says.

The team took eight months to conceive and create the spider-like Bandicoot . The robot, powered using a generator, stands one meter tall and weighs 80kg. It can be operated in automatic and semi-automatic modes. It takes around 45 minutes to clean 'large' manholes and 15 minutes for smaller ones.

Team Genrobotics Team Genrobotics with Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Photo: @Genrobotics

The Bandicoot robot has four limbs. It is Wi-Fi enabled and is out-fitted with control panels. Bandicoot can place itself near manholes and release its phalanx into the manhole and scoop out waste. This is then collected in a bucket. The robot's pneumatic limbs and body are powered by gas or pressurized air.

Heavy and delicate electronic devices and panels have been deliberately avoided to prevent possible reaction with gases in manholes. “It can be operated like a smartphone with easy commands. The entire operation can be watched from a flat screen at the operator's console,” says Vimal.

Next Steps

Genrobotics is planning to impart training in using the robot to those engaged in manual scavenging. This will ensure that a new technology ensure sustainability of lives too. The user interface will be simplified. The team is also planning to start assembly units outside Kerala and in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. “Bandicoot will keep the filth off the lives of those doing the job. It will also prevent loss of precious lives in manholes," Vimal says.

Kerala Water Authority managing director A Shainamol said the robots would be deployed in six months. She said there were inquiries on the robot from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Maharashtra. "Our intention is to promote local talent. The product, being fully funded by the government, will first be run in Thiruvananthapuram where there are over 5,000 manholes," she said.

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