From geeky teens to saviours

Issue 02, 2019

From geeky teens to saviours

Vinayak Surya Swami |author

Issue 02, 2019

Young innovators from IIT Madras have developed the SEPoy (‘Septic Tank-Oye!’) Robot which aims to provide an intelligent solution to the problem of manual scavenging

As India leapfrogs into the digital era, one of the biggest challenges is to develop the means required for holistic development. Even with major advancements, the country’s infrastructure still exhibits immense possibilities for technological ratifications. However, over the last decade an unprecedented involvement in schemes related to national interests came from the younger generation. This recent trend was born of the fact that by 2020, the average age in India will be 29, making it the world’s youngest country with 64 per cent of the population in the working group and the realisation that progress is always accelerated with involvement.

With government initiatives that provide the much needed boost for innovative start ups and sponsored missions like Swachh Bharat and Digital India initiative, the mantle for intrinsic infrastructural development has been taken up the country’s youth. In the last five years alone, numerous innovative projects have been developed across India that aim to curb the various vices hampering advancement. While many projects have been realistic conceptualisations of ideas, the feasibility and widespread application are still amongst the questions left unanswered. However, innovative breakthroughs have enabled the students across the country to develop solutions for some of the biggest problems that blemish India’s global image. One such project from the halls of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, The SEpoy Septic Tank robot, has managed to capture the attention of several NGOs working to eradicate the problem of sanitation and manual scavenging.

Divanshu Kumar and his team members with the SEpoy robot

Robotics for all

After four years of research, IIT Madras has come up with a technologically sound, stand-alone alternative that aims to eradicate the need to put valuable lives at risk. The students and faculty in-charge of this project had been trying to put together a remote-managed robot that would cut through the solidified waste and simultaneously pump out the sludge to cleanse even the most constricted drainage systems. “Propelling a robot in this environment is a major challenge”, explains Professor Prabhu Rajagopal of the Centre for Non-Destructive Evaluation at IIT Madras. His team has developed fish fin-like bio-inspired propulsion for such environments, through research projects with contributions from students including R. Santhosh and D. Srikanth, Aman Agarwal, Kranthi Chaitanya and Tanmay Mothe. One of the major challenges throughout the development of the prototype was its feasibility. Even today, there is no dearth of mechanised options for waste clearing and treatment, however, at current costs, which range anywhere between INR 2-5 million, the nation-wide application poses a problem.

The Process

As a first step, the team developed a cutter that can shred and homogenise the sludge, which can then be sucked out using a vacuum apparatus. Initially working with a simplistic cutter model, they have now developed an umbrella-like cutter. In close consultation with the Safai Karamchari Andolan(SKA), an organisation that works for the rights of manual scavengers across the country, this team of researchers at IIT Madras are on the cusp of delivering a product that could prevent cleaners from engaging in the debilitating practice of manual scavenging.

Priced between INR 1-3 million, the SEpoy Septic Tank Robot holds the key for the successful and risk-free solution to the problem of manual scavenging. The prototype which was developed by the skilled students uses high-velocity cutters to cut through the thick sludge in septic tanks and clear drains. But the supervising faculty members are hopeful that with a few more modifications the cost of the project can be significantly reduced to promote widespread application. Student Divanshu Kumar, who has played a key role in the development of the SEpoy Septic Tank Robot, says that the challenge of manual scavenging is both social and technical.” From our end, we are trying to develop a technological solution which can also overcome the social barrier by ensuring that the Sepoy product is actually operated by the same people who would initially work as manual scavengers, “ he says.

The SEPoy septic tank robot prototype

A treasure trove of skill

India is emerging as a force to reckon with, when it comes to innovative and technically sound solutions to some of the most challenging problems related to infrastructure and widespread development. The credit must go to the robust system of higher education in the country and the spirit of the nation’s youth to find simple albeit innovative solutions to the biggest obstacles on the road to development. The institutions, particularly the IITs, pull focus towards real world, practical applications of the various theories that are the foundation of the various disciplines. The assignments encourage the technique of ‘brainstorming’ and there is a free sense of interaction between students and professors on the feasibility of projects. Moreover, with India becoming a hub for production by numerous multi-national corporations, student migration has seen a considerable decline over the last decade.

From machines that dispense clean drinking water for every recyclable waste item and SmartCane technology for visually impaired individuals to solar powered cold storages, the young innovators graduating from various institutions have taken the better India mission to their hearts. From being teenage nerds to remarkable innovators, the youngsters of india are without a doubt, its biggest saviours.

By: Vinayak Surya Swami

Vinayak Surya Swami

Vinayak Surya Swami is a Delhi-based journalist. He holds a degree in mechanical engineering and has worked as an apprentice Shipbuilder with the Indian Navy. A part-time writer since his teenage years, he switched to journalism to pursue his prurience for writing and travel.
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