IIT-Madras develops robot to clean septic tanks, ready for field deployment

The IIT-Madras model is empowering enterprises established by self-help groups, whose key stakeholders are women hit by the consequences of manual scavenging.

IIT-Madras manual scavening
The first batch of the course is scheduled to commence on July 1, 2022, and registrations will close on June 24, 2022.

The Indian Institute of Technology – Madras has developed a robot that aims to eliminate manual scavenging in India.

The institute plans to deploy 10 units of HomoSEP — the new robot — across Tamil Nadu. Researchers are already in touch with sanitation workers to identify the specific locations for deployment. They are also considering locations in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

This robot was developed over several years by a team led by Prof Prabhu Rajagopal of the Center for Nondestructive Evaluation and Faculty at the Department of Mechanical Engineering with IIT Madras-incubated startup Solinas Integrity. The team closely worked with sanitation workers and was supported by the Safai Karamchari Andolan, an NGO dedicated to eliminating manual scavenging.

At present, two HomoSEP units have been dispatched to self-help groups led by Nagamma and Ruth Mary, whose husbands died during sanitation work, with support from the NGO.

The IIT-Madras model is empowering enterprises established by self-help groups, whose key stakeholders are women hit by the consequences of manual scavenging.

Talking about his motivations behind the project, Prof Rajagopal said: “The septic tank is a poisonous environment, filled with semi-solid and semi-fluid human faecal material that make up about two-thirds of the tank. Hundreds of deaths are reported every year across India, due to manual scavenging in septic tanks despite bans and prohibitory orders.”

“The HomoSEP project is unique for the way it has brought together the key stakeholders, including university (our team), NGO, industry CSR and start-up to develop a solution to an urgent and pressing social problem. No doubt the problem is large and complex, and we hope that our effort serves as an inspiration for others to join in the push.”

HomoSEP was developed as a final-year Masters’ project by Divanshu Kumar, guided by Prof Rajagopal. It was showcased at IIT-Madras’ Carbon Zerp Challenge, 2019, after receiving seed support from the institute’s Socially Relevant Projects initiative. Despite pandemic-related difficulties, the researchers collaborated with Solinas Integrity (headed by Divanshu) to further develop HomoSEP.

The HomoSEP robot can homogenise the hard sludge in septic tanks through a custom rotary blade mechanism and pump the slurry using an integrated suction mechanism. Sanitation workers will be able to operate the robot on their own after relevant training and guidance.

Bhavesh Narayani, Product Lead at Solinas Integrity said: “The path from a laboratory product to deploying a robot in a real septic tank field is fraught with difficulties. Our team spent many sleepless nights, designing a solution keeping in mind, the safety of the safai karamcharis… The joy on their faces today as a result of the HomoSEP is the most motivating factor for us to work more and distribute more. We believe that working together, we can eliminate manual scavenging from septic tanks.”

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