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Answer to scavenging: Bandicoot robots

Bandicoot at work during a recent trial run
 

Bangalore: If everything goes according to plan, Bandicoots will soon be cleaning manholes in the Kerala capital instead of manual scavengers.

No, not the rodent but spider-like robots designed to enter sewers.

A Thiruvananthapuram-based tech start-up that last week demonstrated how its robot Bandicoot works has entered into an agreement with the Kerala Water Authority (KWA) to get cracking as early as the first week of March.

"We are eliminating manual scavenging, not jobs," said A. Shainamol, managing director of the water authority that gave the impetus to Genrobotics, the start-up, to develop the robot.

"While robots can do the scavenging, those who handled the job thus far will be trained to operate the easy-to-operate machine," she told The Telegraph. Manual scavenging is banned but the practice that has claimed hundreds of lives across the country still continues.

"No civilised society can accept such an inhuman practice. That is where Genrobotics came into the picture," Shainamol said. Bandicoot is a blend of robotics, mechanics, electronics, computer science and a lot of hard work by some young men in their early twenties. Although named after rodents that scavenge sewers, it actually works like a spider.

Equipped with two cameras and legs like a spider's, it enters manholes, cleans solid wastes, dumps them in a waste bucket and comes out - all based on operator commands.

"It can be operated like your smartphone with very easy commands. The entire operation can be watched from a flat screen with the operator's console," said Vimal Govind, CEO and chief product architect of the robot.

The KWA is looking at February 26 as the formal launch date to induct the Bandicoot. "The idea is to launch it in time for Attukal Pongala, which is the best period to display the real efficacy of the robot," Shainamol said, citing a festival recognised as the world's largest gathering of women.

Several lakh women are expected to throng Thiruvananthapuram on March 2 for the festival, when they cook a rice-based sweet dish and make offerings to a goddess.As this could generate a lot of solid and liquid waste, the KWA plans to deploy the Bandicoot to clear clogged manholes.

Bezwada Wilson, national convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan that fights against the practice of manual scavenging, welcomed the use of technology, saying 1,670 people across the country had died working in manholes in about 10 years.

"This machine is a welcome step, but what we basically need is a national policy which no central government has worked on despite our repeated pleas," Wilson said.

Vimal, the chief product architect, said his group of young men started working on robotics "as part of our campus projects, with our main focus on developing a robotic suit that would help anyone lift heavy stuff".

It was the state government's Entrepreneurship Development Cell that turned their attention to manual scavenging. "Once we studied the problem by talking to people engaged in this line of work and actually watching them work, we decided where to focus," he said.

The end result was Bandicoot - developed with a Rs 10-lakh seed fund granted by the Kerala Start-up Mission.

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