As the mercury hits 45 degree Celsius on a Friday afternoon in June, there is a throng of onlookers at a small intersection in a housing colony in Gurgaon. Apart from the bystanders, there are sanitation workers and officials from the Punjab Water Supply and Sewerage Board too. They have all assembled to witness something they have only heard about, but never seen - a robot in action. The cynosure, meanwhile, with four legs on wheels stands atop a manhole, which it would soon clean.
As an electric generator comes to life, Bandicoot the robot preps up. Red and green buttons on the user interface on one side of the machine are pressed, and a three-armed structure with claw-like arms descends from the robot and goes into the manhole. The screen shows users the messy insides of the manhole as the claws clutch the sewage and draw it outside.
An anxious Vimal Govind, Co-founder and CEO of Genrobotics Innovations, stands by the side and observes the proceedings. Arun George, another co-founder, operates the robot in the scorching heat, sweat dripping down his face. The duo is apprehensive about the response of the officials who are there to inspect the robot. Both have not slept the night before. Govind was in Chandigarh the day before to meet officials and George flew in from Mumbai where they are working on a project with Bharat Petroleum. Another Co-founder Rashid K. is in Dubai to meet the authorities there. "We are partnering with the Dubai municipality for their different automation needs for the next year-and-a-half. A Memorandum of Understanding has been signed and we are on the verge of signing the contract," says Govind.
The fast-paced life has become a necessity for the founders who are trying to expand and are in talks with many urban local bodies. Genrobotics, which started out in Kerala, has deployed 12 robots so far in four states - Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat.
Why Build a Robot
The trigger for setting up Genrobotics and building Bandicoot was a manhole cleaning accident in Kerala. The four founders - Arun George, Vimal Govind, Nikhil N.P. and Rashid K. - were interested in powered exoskeleton technology since their college days in MES College of Engineering in Kuttippuram, Kerala. They have brought out several papers on the subject, which have been published in many journals. The team was also invited by the American Society for Research to present a paper in Singapore. However, they could not build a sustainable business out of this work and took up corporate jobs.
After an accident in Kerala in which three people died cleaning a manhole, they were approached by the state government to find a technological solution to end manual scavenging. As the team was known for their work in robotics, they were asked to develop a technology that would address the problem.
Though manual scavenging is prohibited in India under The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, it is still practiced in the country. Human rights organisation Safai Karamchari Andolan estimates that there have 1,850 manual scavenging related deaths in the country in the past decade. Genrobotics, it seems, has found a solution to this grave socio-economic issue.
The team launched the company in 2017 and was initially supported by the Kerala Start-up Mission. Later, they secured Rs 1 crore as seed fund from early-stage investor unicorn ventures and angel investor and former Google India Managing Director Rajan Anandan.
"We faced many challenges because no one had ever done something like this before and we did not have any reference to learn from," says Govind. "We had to be careful about the type of equipment to use due to the pollutives inside a manhole. Water pressure is high and a small leakage is enough to fail the equipment. Getting waterproof equipment is also costly," he says. Initially, they used local equipment to build the robot but later started importing from Germany, the US and other countries and assembled at their 6,000 sq. ft manufacturing facility in Thiruvananthapuram. Genrobotics has designed the robots, but imports material and equipment as the required explosion proof-certification is not available in India. They also seek customisation from original equipment manufacturers.
The company has tried to make the robots as user-friendly as possible so that sanitation workers can easily use them. The idea is not to eliminate but rehabilitate the workers.
"We have put in a lot of effort to make the user-interface of the robot very simple so that (within two-three minutes) anybody can operate it. The robot also learns from your operation style and adjusts itself," Govind says. "We want a sanitation worker to operate a complex machine like this. That helps the worker rehabilitate quickly."
Building one Bandicoot costs Rs 18-20 lakh, while they sell it for Rs 25-32 lakh. While the company has so far been focussing on fine-tuning the technology, the co-founders now want to scale up.
Genrobotics is also working on other technologies that can help in the sanitation sector and eradicate manual scavenging in India. "There are other problems in the sanitation sector that we have identified, which require good technological input. We are building a manhole monitoring system which can predict when a manhole is about to get flooded, so that it can be cleaned beforehand," says Govind.
It continues to burn in Gurgaon but the founders are girding up for another demonstration, this time for sanitation officials from Haryana. One Bandicoot at a time, Genrobotics is looking to make life easier for Indian safai karamcharis.