One of Kerala’s rare startup success stories has been Genrobotics – the company that brought the popular robot to replace man in cleaning the state’s filthy manholes. On day one of the ‘Huddle Kerala’ startup conclave on the coast of picturesque Kovalam on Friday, Arun George, the co-founder of the company, spoke at length to IndianExpress.com about the praise and compliments that have washed over him and his friends in recent months and the challenges they looked forward to.
“Even when we were working with corporate companies, we were never happy. We felt that our talents were not being recognised. We always wanted to build a startup,” says George, an electrical and electronics engineering graduate from MES College in Kuttipuram.
It was in 2015, when George and his friends were working with different firms, that they came across a news report announcing the death of two manual scavenging workers in Kozhikode while they were cleaning a manhole. The germ of an idea to use technology to fight social evils, embedded deep in their hearts right from college, propelled them to quit their cushy jobs and dive headlong into the troubled waters of startup-culture. An extensive period of research and development followed that got them talking to manual scavenging workers to closely understand their work, their life and their struggles.
“We are engineers so we knew we could solve this. We worked day and night at Technopark,” said George, referring to the IT park in Thiruvananthapuram, home to several corporate firms and incubators.
They came up with the idea of Bandicoot, a semi-automatic robot that could lower itself down to 10 metres deep, clean the manhole by picking up slush and collecting it in a bucket attached to it. The prototype they came up with in nine months, funded by the Kerala Innovation Grant, was designed in such a way that it could lift the manhole cover using magnetic technology and perform functions like positioning the sewer jetting pipe. An advanced nano coating technology would keep the machine dirt-free and easy to clean.
George claims Bandicoot can clean a manhole in 20 minutes, much less than what man takes, and designed in such a way that it can be operated by the workers themselves, thereby protecting their employment. While the robot has to be positioned manually by the workers, the cleaning will be done on its own.
Earlier this year, the efforts of Genrobotics paid off as the Kerala government greenlighted the project and bought the first of the Bandicoots to help workers in Thiruvananthapuram. States like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have also expressed strong interest, both states with large number of undocumented manual scavengers. George and his colleagues were also invited for a national consultative workshop on solid and liquid waste water management in New Delhi where then Ganga Rejuvenation Minister Uma Bharti was reportedly impressed. Later this month, the team will travel to Bihar for an event that will be attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It cost George and his team nearly Rs 10 lakhs to build the first Bandicoot, but he says with manufacturing in bulk, the costs could come down substantially. The team have also received national and international patents. Elevating the project to the national level and perhaps even linking it with the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan are goals in front of George and his friends.
“We are currently training the workers on using the product. They are expressing good feedback. Earlier, they were sewage workers, but now they are called operators. So we are happy to see their status elevated,” said George.