The UN has spoken, as have the young activists—climate change is worsening and we have just about 12 years to turn things around if we want to leave behind a healthy planet for the future generations.
Countries across the world are trapped in a vicious cycle of growing population and pollution, be it land, water or air, besides other hazards. And it would be a shame if we didn’t take the help of technology to come up with sustainable solutions.
However, some people, particularly youths, are doing just that—using technological advances to improve the environment around us; and it’s important that we celebrate and encourage them.
Case in point: Bandicoot 2.0, a robot that cleans up manholes and drains.
What is Bandicoot?
Designed by Kerala-based start-up Genrobotics, this tech wonder, which costs anywhere between Rs 15 lakh and Rs 20 lakh apiece, depending on its specifications, not only does the clean-up job faster—in 20-45 minutes—but also reduces the risk of manhole accidents and health hazards, which manual scavengers face daily.
This machine can open the lids of a manhole and clean and collect waste.
Four friends—Arun George, Vimal Govind, Rashid K, and Nikhil NP—studying in MES College of Engineering in Kerala founded the start-up in 2015. They initially started with the idea of building an exoskeleton to lift weights, for assisting in construction tasks or lifting heavy items. Later, the state government, which was trying to curb manual scavenging, approached them for help to replace it with a mechanised process.
The quartet took up the challenge in 2017 and rolled out Bandicoot 2.0 that October. And no, this robot hasn’t taken away human jobs—it has a human-controlled interface, which needs three labourers to operate it.
“We have attached five to six cameras (including night-vision ones) to the robot. So, once it enters a manhole, the operator can monitor the work’s progress,” Nikhil told Outlook Business.
Why is it important?
India hasn’t been able to eradicate manual scavenging completely and the reason for that is there haven’t been viable alternatives to it; so more and more labourers, in need of a job but lacking a skill set, continue to take it the dirty work, risking their lives in the process.
A 2018 survey of the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment across 18 states identifies more than 20,000 manual scavengers.
According to the data provided by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis in 2018, at least one worker has died every five days while cleaning manholes since the beginning of 2017.
Manual scavenging often involves rigorous cleaning; some of the major problems are health issues amongst the workers due to the toxicity in the sewerage system and risk of asphyxia due to the lack of sufficient oxygen or high concentration of hazardous gases.
There have, in fact, been numerous cases of workers fainting after entering manholes due to exposure to harmful gases.
Bandicoot 2.0 prevents that—it is built to identify toxic gases through its attached gas detectors and warn the workers who approach the manhole.
Bandicoot also has a training app with a user-friendly interface to teach workers how to operate and use it. “The workers can learn from animated videos available on the app,” said Nikhil.
Bandicoot is more than a robot; it’s an innovation that has the potential to save lives, while carrying out the much-needed desilting, especially before monsoons, faster and more efficiently.
Where is the robot making waves?
In November 2018, Genrobotics got an order from the Kerala Water Authority for 15 units. Having gained the state government’s trust, the tech start-up also received orders from the municipal corporations of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to mechanise waste collection and disposal.
By February-end, it delivered 10 robots each in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Haryana.
Genrobotics is also getting international attention with the Sharjah Municipality in the UAE expressing interest in Bandicoot and its potential.
Last month, the Delhi Jal Board and its officers took inspiration from Bandicoot to develop small sewer-cleaning vehicles fitted with machines for 200 workers. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal inaugurated these machines and said, “It is a historic day for Delhi to start this initiative and ensure safety and dignity of human life. These machines will put an end to the practice of sanitation workers entering manholes and septic tanks for cleaning.”
Funding is vital for this initiative’s success and, to that end, the government and venture capitalists are lending support; Kerala Startup Mission, Kerala Water Authority, Unicorn Indian Ventures, and angel funds are pitching in.
On October 2, 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and UN Secretary Antonio Guterres had honoured Genrobotics at the Mahatma Gandhi International Sanitation Convention.
However, Genrobotics isn’t the first start-up to come up with an innovation in order to eradicate manual scavenging.
Sewer Croc., set up by two retired Hindustan Aeronautics Limited engineers, has built devices to detect poisonous gases and clean sewers.
Shabnam E. Subha is a writing analyst at Qrius.