A growing number of Indian cities are turning to artificial intelligence (AI)-powered robots to tackle many water and sanitation challenges, from cleaning manholes to inspecting vast underground water pipe networks to detect leaks until cleaning the water bodies.
For example, Nagpur, which initially rejected scavenger robots three years ago, is now embracing them wholeheartedly. Thane has incorporated robots for cleaning water storage tanks, while Mumbai is deploying them for cleaning manholes and water bodies. Chennai is using robots to inspect water pipes and in Shillong, robots are being deployed to remove floating waste from the famous Umiam Lake. Start-ups led by young engineers are at the forefront of developing these cutting-edge robotic solutions.
“We have deployed three Bandicoot robots over the past 11 months, which have cleaned around 9,000 drainage chambers. These robots have emerged as a sustainable solution in our efforts to eliminate manual cleaning,” says Prithviraj BP, CEO of Nagpur Smart City, a special purpose vehicle of Nagpur Municipal Corporation (NMC).
Bandicoot, a robot developed by Genrobotics, an award-winning start-up based in Kerala, harnesses the power of AI to clean manholes, eliminating the need for sanitation workers to expose themselves to highly hazardous environments. The robot is equipped with human-like arms and an array of gas sensors to identify and assess wastewater conditions inside the drainage chambers. But Nagpur is not the only city to have adopted it.
“Trivandrum was the first city to deploy our robots four years ago. Today, from Leh to Trivandrum, our robots clean manholes in 200 cities across the country. Until a few years ago, it was difficult to convince the authorities, but they became receptive after Covid-19, when cities faced a serious crisis,” explains Vimal Govind, co-founder and CEO of Genrobotics.
Robots are not deployed just to clean manholes. The Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) deployed them to address leakage issues within its aging water distribution network. “We were experiencing significant leaking issues in some areas and urgently needed a solution to assess whether existing pipelines needed to be replaced. Manually identifying faults accurately was almost impossible,” says Thiru R Vijaikumar, engineer at CMWSSB.
Endobot, an AI-powered robot, solved the problem. He crawled inside water pipes in the area and helped identify contamination points, cracks, leaks, encrustations and broken pipe walls.
“The data collected was processed and mapped using Swasth, our GIS platform, which provided a comprehensive understanding of the condition of the pipeline network. The results revealed that there were many damaged pipelines throughout the network, with an average of one defect every 6 meters,” says Moinak Banerjee, co-founder of Solinas Integrated, an incubated climate technology start-up by IIT Madras.
“Our AI-powered robot can measure water flow, pressure, nature of leaks and inclination of underground pipes. This eliminates the need for road digging and repetitive inspections, helping to reduce the cost of identifying the condition of the pipeline and taking corrective actions to improve the efficiency of the water distribution network,” adds Banerjee.
Asim Bhalero, co-founder of Fluid Robotics, another company that provides solutions to water and wastewater pollution problems in cities, says that on average, most Tier 1 cities have around 3,000 to 4,000 km of sewage pipes, and some, like Delhi, have around 8,000 km of pipelines. “But 80% of the wastewater that leaves our homes and offices goes untreated, directly into bodies of water or groundwater supplies, and this is largely because the pipe network is heavily underutilized due to leaks, with only 40% of sewage reaching the treatment plant,” he says.
Bhalero’s company collaborated with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to clean the Powai lake. “Our robot equipped with AI-based cameras, ultrasonic sensors and lasers not only inspects pipelines for damage, such as cracks or faulty joints, but also maps the entire pipeline network. We used this data to help BMC intercept and redirect wastewater from the lake,” he explains.
Similarly, his company, which has helped cities like Pune, Hyderabad and Jaipur inspect and map their pipe networks, found that 50% of urban drinking water is lost due to leaks in the distribution system, which , in many cities, is over. 100 years. “It also doesn’t help that most cities haven’t mapped their underground pipe infrastructure, making it impossible to effectively manage their water infrastructure,” he says.
Clearbot is another startup tackling the critical problem of water pollution. The eponymous robotic boat she developed collects floating trash and removes hyacinths from bodies of water. It has been rolled out on a pilot basis in cities such as Shillong, Varanasi and Bangalore. In Bangalore, for example, it is currently deployed in the Jigani industrial area to clean floating waste from the local lake. “In August, we conducted a pilot project in Shillong, removing around 250 kg of waste from Umiam Lake in just three hours,” says Sidhant Gupta, co-founder of Clearbot.
The robotic boat follows a simple instruction – “go clean” – to start its process. It can detect different types of trash, avoid collisions with other boats, recharge using solar energy and even park itself. Additionally, it can transmit valuable data remotely, providing insight into the quantity and nature of waste.
“Currently, Clearbot can collect around 80 kg of waste in an hour. But we are about to launch a new version that can collect up to 200 kg of waste per hour,” says Gupta.
Technological advances in robotics for smart cities have now inspired an entire area of research called Robot-City Interaction (RCI), where integrating robots into urban ecosystems and how they can improve lives is an area major study.
Experts believe that robotics and AI have the transformative power to address various urban challenges and optimize the functioning of cities, paving the way for the autonomous cities of tomorrow.
Prabhu Rajagopal, professor of mechanical engineering at IIT Madras, where he also heads the Innovation Centre, says that over the past few years, India has made significant progress in robotics and AI. “These innovations are mainly driven by start-ups which have designed a wide range of solutions ranging from underwater robots designed to inspect river crossings and bridges to drones capable of inspecting city skyscrapers” , he explains. “Robotic technologies find applications in all sectors. I believe that in India, robots will take over most of the dangerous tasks,” says Rajagopal.