Big Idea

Super Scavenger

Kerala-based start-up Genrobotics has designed robots to clear manholes and drains, and municipalities are signing on as clients

RA Chandroo

In big cities, apart from gleaming glass buildings and fast cars, it is quite common to see a manual scavenger gingerly stepping into an overflowing manhole to unblock it. He trowels out the sludge — of kitchen waste, plastic and human excreta — while inhaling toxic gases and wading through infected liquid waste. Although a ban on this practice was imposed way back in 1993 it still continues unaffectedly. Thus, to put an end to this, a Thiruvananthapuram-based start-up Genrobotics has come up with a solution. Its four-member team has built a 50-kg robot, named Bandicoot, which can clean up a manhole in 20-45 minutes. A manual attempt usually takes around three hours. 

The robot opens the lid of the manhole, reaches down into it, cleans the drain floor and collects the debris. 

Early days

Genrobotics was founded in 2015 by Nikhil NP, Arun George, Rashid K and Vimal Govind MK when they were studying in MES College of Engineering in Kerala’s Malappuram district, a 10-hour drive from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram. The four were also working with the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development Cell (IEDC), set up by the Kerala Startup Mission (KSM), which connects students with the ecosystem of mentors, investors and clients.

The quartet hit upon an idea — to build a 10-ft tall exoskeleton to lift weights. This was to be used in construction, warehousing or for any task that required extra ‘muscle’ and extra cover. They put together a prototype and, on being encouraged to build on it, came up with a battery-powered robotic suit on a relatively small budget of Rs.51,000. This could lift weights of up to 50 kg. The four then upgraded it further to a generation 2.5 robot, which could lift heavier weights of up to 80 kg. 

Their effort was supported by KSM but they did not make any headway. “We had to stop making exoskeletons and, in 2016, we took up jobs in MNCs,” says Nikhil, co-founder of Genrobotics. But, the hope of making “something unique in the future” stayed alive. 

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