Manual scavenging is outlawed in India, yet thousands of people are still engaged in the work and many die cleaning sewers. According to the Safai Karmachari Andolan, a movement to eradicate manual scavenging, at least 1,470 manual scavengers died at work between 2010 and 2017. There are an estimated 1.8 lakh people in the country working as manual scavengers.

Now, though, a group of engineers from Kerala may have found a way to end the “dehumanising practice”. They have designed a spider-shaped robot that cleans manholes and sewers with precision. Called Bandicoot, it has already successfully completed a trial run in Thiruvananthapuram, unclogging five manholes filled with plastic, filth, medical waste and sediments.

The robot, which takes 15 minutes to clean small sewers and around 45 minutes to unclog bigger ones, was developed by Genrobotics, a company founded by nine young engineers in Thiruvananthapuram two years ago. “Our ultimate aim is to end manual scavenging in India,” said Vimal Govind, the company’s 25-year-old chief executive officer. “It is time to change manholes to roboholes.”

Following the successful trial earlier this month, the Kerala Water Authority has decided to use Bandicoot to clean all sewers in Thiruvananthapuram.

Bandicoot cleans a manhole during the trial run in Thiruvananthapuram. Photo courtesy Genrobotics
Bandicoot cleans a manhole during the trial run in Thiruvananthapuram. Photo courtesy Genrobotics

Ray of hope

India has enacted two laws – the Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines Prohibition Act, 1993 and the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 – to eventually eradicate the practice of manually cleaning, carrying and disposing human excreta and garbage from sewers. Yet, manual scavengers across India still clean sewers at great risk to their lives. Most of the time, they are not provided the mandatory safety gear by their employers, largely municipal agencies, making them vulnerable to fatal accidents. Even a protective cap is a luxury for most of them, let alone jackets, gloves and masks. As a consequence, many die from inhaling poisonous gases accumulated inside manholes, oxygen depletion, heat stress or from falling down the pit. The overwhelming majority of manual scavengers are from Dalit communities. It is a harrowing life.

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Bandicoot, thus, is a ray of hope. It only requires a person to operate it from a safe distance. The 80-kg robot lifts the heavy metal cover on its own, drops its arm into the manhole, scoops out the solid waste and dumps it in a bucket. “All operations can be viewed on a monitor,” Govind explained. “The robot can also be used to check the sewage apart from jetting the sewer lines.”

Genrobotics plans to teach manual scavengers to operate the robot with the aim of rehabilitating them. “Bandicoot will make the life of manhole cleaners safer,” Govind said. “It will help them earn a decent living without fear of losing jobs and lives. It will also break the caste system. Bandicoot will ensure manholes in India will remain clean without losing human lives.”

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In good company

In 2015, nine mechanical engineering students from MES Engineering College in Kuttippuram, Malappuram, to explore the possibility of developing robots. “All of us are passionate about robotics and we began to exchange ideas and the group was immediately given the name Team Genrobotics,” Govind said. “We decided to retain the name when we launched the company in 2016.”

The idea was to build on a powered exoskeleton they had developed in the final year of college and which had won them many accolades. A powered exoskeleton is a wearable mobile machine that allows limb movement with increased strength and endurance. Such machines are used by soldiers to carry heavy objects and by fire fighters during emergency operations.

After finishing college in 2016, they began to work on developing medical and industrial exoskeletons. But paucity of funds hampered them. “In order to raise funds we began to work for different firms,” said Govind.

In 2017, the Kerala Startup Mission, a start-up incubator launched by the state government, offered to fund their project. “Our robotics dream got wings once again and we regrouped soon,” Govind said.

An illustration of Bandicoot lifting a manhole cover. Photo courtesy Genrobotics
An illustration of Bandicoot lifting a manhole cover. Photo courtesy Genrobotics

A bright idea

The team then went to meet the state’s Information Technology Secretary M Sivasankar to discuss their ideas. Quite unexpectedly, he asked the engineers whether they could develop a robot to clean manholes. “A manual scavenger’s photograph published in a newspaper that morning triggered his suggestion,” Govind said. “We readily agreed.”

They set to work immediately, studying the different types of manholes, speaking to manual scavengers to understand the cleaning methods and watching documentaries and videos on manual scavenging. “It helped us understand the scourge of manual scavenging,” Govind said. “We decided to go ahead with the project as we felt it was high time we ended the practice.”

In one documentary, Govind heard a manual scavenger saying God had made them to do this work. “The statement shocked me,” he recalled. “At that time I decided that it was my duty to rescue these people from this deadly job.”

The team officially started work on the project in June 2017 and launched Bandicoot’s beta version in January 2018. “We are indebted to Kerala Startup Mission and the Kerala Water Authority for helping us realise our dream,” Govind said.

The research and development work was done and the robot was assembled at the Kerala Water Authority’s office in Thiruvananthapuram. “We procured the components, except the advanced camera and waterproof material, from different parts of India and customised them for our needs,” Govind said. “Approximate coast of one robot is Rs 10 lakh but the price will come down when it is mass produced. But we can finalise the price only after talking to government.”