Robotics in action: A helping hand to India’s manpower

In India, robotic intervention can play a critical role in undertaking tasks which may be fatal to human beings. Gen Robotics, a Kerala-based start-up, is ensuring just that. The company began its operations with mere Rs. 10 lakh through the Start-Up Kerala programme and today, it is valued at Rs. 900 crores. Backed by investors like Zoho, and industry leader Anand Mahindra, Genrobotics is providing mechanised solutions in the field of sewage scavenging and healthcare. 

Vimal Govind MK, co-founder and CEO, Genrobotics, spoke with India Business & Trade, on the expertise required to build robotics for underwater applications, and the prospects of building an exoskeleton to strengthen the Indian army. As of 2023, the company has deployed nearly 400 units of robots across the country. 

Gen robotics Vimal

Photo Source: GenRobotics

IBT: Manual scavenging has been outlawed in India for over a decade but it is still being practiced. What prompted you and your team to enter into this segment?

Vimal Govind: My co-founders and I have an avid interest in robotics, and initially, we tried to build an exoskeleton. This is specifically for helping people in defence and building an ironman suit for the Indian Army. A few years ago, we came to know of an unfortunate event of manual scavenging close to our college campus. Three people died in this incident, including one civilian who tried to help the sanitation worker. And after that, we came to know about a person who was completely submerged in a manhole.

So, this thought went into the creation of our first innovation, the Bandicoot Robot. We realised that existing technologies are not enough to handle the problems that occur in manholes. These manholes mostly have human interventions. They are narrow, deep, and do not have proper vision, which makes it difficult to work on complex sewage problems. We thought that rather than doing it with men, we can actually replace this practice with robots. That’s how the robotic concept integration into manhole cleaning came. And we put around one year of additional effort after the pursuit behind the exoskeleton (2015-17). We created a lot of patents in that domain.

In 2017, we shifted to building the technology of Bandicoot Robot and in February 2018, we launched the first product in Kerala.

IBT: What was the initial R&D that you undertook to build Bandicoot?

Vimal Govind: So, basically, sanitation is a strain which requires a certain level of material to survive as a hardware product in the industry. We wanted to achieve a certain level of expertise and got into alloys, specifically in the forms of aluminium and advanced materials like carbon fibre. This is done for the survival of robots in sanitation and underwater applications. And not only that, all the electronic equipment that we use normally has to get into proper IP68-rated waterproofing in order to work underwater. We brought a certain level of technical expertise into our innovations, while simultaneously ensuring a way to reduce the cost of building robotics.

This is to create an economic ecosystem which is feasible for even the government to promote similar innovations. We worked on identifying various types of technologies. Different types of control methodologies and actuators are being used in the robotic industry in the traditional form. However, if we are trying to use that directly in sanitation-related applications, it may not be feasible due to the high-cost requirement of waterproofing and material optimization.

We built an entire R&D ecosystem in India and created expertise in hydraulic and pneumatic actuators and control system forms. Our innovation has been such a massive hit, that people from all over the world come to our office headquarters in Trivandrum to learn all these new methodologies we are creating.

On the cost side, we used a lot of ‘Startup India and Startup Kerala’ kind of grants initially, and many CSR funds. With time, we needed a higher amount of funding, for which we approached Indian VCs like Unicorn, India Ventures and so on. And after that, recently, we got another round of funding from Zoho Corporation. They invested in the company in the last round.

IBT: How do you source the raw material to build complex technologies? Did you have to import some of them?

Vimal Govind: Before COVID, we were using around 85% of the material through domestic market sourcing and the rest 15% was imported from other countries. But because of COVID and national policies, we managed to reduce the import percentage to less than 5%. Most of the other materials that we are manufacturing are in-house, and we are sourcing raw materials from the domestic market.

I am very optimistic about sourcing the remaining 5% of raw materials from India in the coming years. These are some kinds of specific sensors and controllers, which we can try to get from India. But it does not qualify for our quality requirements. But I’m hopeful that we can easily find this in future from India itself.

IBT: Apart from Bandicoot, you have two other innovations as well including Wilbur and G-Beetle. Tell us about these innovations and their utilisation. 

Vimal Govind: Wilbur also comes under the same category of cleaning and maintenance. It’s an extension of the cleaning function that we do with Bandicoot. So, if you want to clean a bigger or large confined space, Wilbur can help with that. Bandicoot is more optimized to design for manhole cleaning, specifically underground drainage systems, but Wilbur can be utilised for big septic tanks and sewer treatment plants.

G-Beetle, on the other hand, is medical equipment. As I mentioned, we started with the exoskeleton for the Ironman suit for defence. But when we entered into sanitation to solve the issue of manual scavenging, we had that feeling of greatness in solving social-specific issues and the company had that face of a social enterprise. But we do have a profit model as well.

During the development of G-Beetle, we discovered the potential of exoskeleton technology in assisting individuals with disabilities, particularly those affected by stroke or spinal cord injuries. Our aim was to provide effective neuro-rehabilitation that adheres to medical standards and supports people with disabilities. While such technologies are available in foreign markets, our challenge was to reduce costs and make the technology more affordable in India. Through bootstrapping, we successfully created G-Gaiter, a specialized neurorehabilitation robotic platform designed for gait training. However, we still face limitations in sourcing materials domestically, as more than 30% of the required raw materials need to be imported to meet quality standards.

We have one more long-term vision, as we also want to enter into the defence segment by using more advanced robotics in this area. But meanwhile, we are more focused on sanitation, oil and gas, and medical technology.

IBT: What kind of plans do you have for catering to defence sector?

Vimal Govind: The exoskeleton or technologies that we are using in sanitation can be easily moulded specifically for a variety of defence purposes, where autonomous systems requirements are there. We now have one product in R&D, Gen-Bot, which is like a universal machine, which means it comes in human form. And it can be programmed to multiple applications, like whatever a human does.

If we can program Gen-Bot specifically for cooking, it will do cooking. If you programmed it to do household work, it will do that. Similarly, Gen-Bot can be used in nuclear or maybe defense applications also like defusing a bomb, carrying missiles from one location to another or doing remote tasks without putting human life in danger.

It can also carry heavy loads and do whatever a human can do in a much more efficient manner. It can be used in confined space requirements and extremely hazardous conditions like working in highly toxic or radioactive environments.

IBT: What are your plans for expanding the company in the domestic and overseas market?

Vimal Govind: Our major focus is going to be on the domestic market, and we really want to solve this problem in India regarding sanitation. We are currently operating in 19 states, and trying to expand our presence into all 29 states and the Union Territories. That is our major goal in the coming years.

There are many private entities using our solution. But ultimately, the major user is again the government. Sometimes contractors of various governments approached us and take our solutions.

Though we are in 19 states, the number of deployments is very different. Tamil Nadu has the most number of Bandicoot robots when compared to other states. Kerala has recently launched a project where its 100% Underground Drainage System (UGD) is now being handled by our robots only. So, there are no men involved under government UGDs.

In future, we are thinking of penetrating into the private market also, where normal septic tanks and other things are made. Besides, we are also planning for targeting MNCs and multinational companies, hotels, and apartments where all these places have their own underground sewage structure. In the foreign market, we are scaling up, and have another entity supporting us in the ASEAN region. In this financial year, we are expanding our operations into UAE.

Vimal Govind MK is the co-founder, Chief Executing Officer and Chief Product Architect at Genrobotic Innovations. The young entrepreneur has completed mechanical engineering from Calicut University. The CEO, along with company’s other co-founders, have been included in the Forbes India 30 under 30 list in February 2023.

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