Indian/US-start up Fluid Robotics won the Imagine H2O’s 2020 Urban Water Challenge Audience Choice Award for its AI-based wastewater surveillance robots helping to map India’s sewers. Aquatech Online speaks to the co-founder to find out more.
AI-based wastewater surveillance robot
As robotics hardware and software engineers working in Silicon Valley, Asim Bhalerao and Nidhi Jain hadn’t found their raison d'êtres.
It was only until they went back to visit family in Mumbai that they found out what that was: mapping the sprawling labyrinths of pipelines underneath India's vast cities.
After witnessing a leaking 2km pipeline and speaking to engineers, Bhalerao found out the Indian city municipality didn’t have any maps of its water and wastewater networks.
“Local engineers were using a really old technique of the sounding rods to find out where the leaks were,” he told Aquatech Online.
"And this was adjacent to a Research Institute that housed a particle accelerator – there was such a disconnect between the technology available for cutting edge scientific research versus basic needs such as water supply."
After realising that cities were unable to map pipelines, and the levels of raw sewage being generated and discharged to lakes and rivers, the couple immediately set to work.
Back in the US in 2015, they developed a prototype AI-based wastewater surveillance robot with the ambition to map underground networks, inspect water quality and flow and capture pipe health.
“As big fans of the children's cartoon series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they named the first robot after the fictitious leader, Master Splinter.”
As big fans of the children's cartoon series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they named the first robot after the fictitious leader, Master Splinter.
Fluid Robotics was born
After taking time off work to travel with the prototype robot from the US to India, they were able to convince the water supply department in Mumbai to allow them to do pilots. And so Fluid Robotics was born.
The company partnered with UK consultancy, Pell Frischmann, to bid on a city tender.
“We identified about 18 stormwater drains that were basically discharging raw sewage into a lake,” he says. “We monitored each of those drains, and we saw that there are about two million litres a day was going into this lake untreated.”
A detailed project report was then produced for the city.
“We advised how the city should divert the wastewater, the two million litres a day from those 18 points,” the co-founder adds.
“And basically they hired a civil contractor who executed based on our report. And now a majority of the two million litres a day is being diverted to a local treatment plant.”
From sewer health to Covid-19 samples
Today the robot system has been renamed to Fluid Health, with the artificial intelligence system underpinning it called Fluid AI.
It was initially designed to map out sewers and stormwater drains.
To start with, Fluid Robotics could find out the volume of raw sewage discharge but had to bring in a partner company for water quality analysis.
However, this soon changed. If phase one of robot deployment could be called condition assessment, then phase two saw the robots upgraded to collect samples and analyse water quality.
“We modified our robots to be able to collect sewage samples for Covid-19 detection while they were inside the sewer pipes.”
“In March-April timeframe, when we started learning that wastewater testing would actually be a good way to track the spread of the Covid-19 virus across the city, we modified our robots to be able to collect and analyse sewage samples while they were inside the sewer pipes,” said Bhalerao.
"We can now store them on the device at 3-4 degrees Celsius."
Today the company has a small army of robots, that can tackle sewers as small as 6-8 inch in diameter, up to large water tunnels.
"We've got robots that can crawl, float and swim through pipes as well – we've got a few different mechanically deployed solutions, with the backend being very similar."
Pilots, partnerships and funding
The company is targeting 10 pilot projects across 10 cities in India, starting with Mumbai and Pune, before moving to Rajasthan.
“We’re not just looking at infrastructure that we want to inspect, but also with the Covid-19 detection solution, we’re addressing public health,” said the co-founder.
"We are also in discussion with a couple of cities in the state of Rajasthan where these are basically very different environment to Pune and Mumbai. This is mostly desert, a very dry climate. The pipelines there are from huge industries, so there’s a lot of industrial waste.”
As well as the $5000 awarded from the Urban Water Challenge, the organisation also secured an additional grant the Pune pilot specifically. Grants have also been secured from the US consultancy, Black & Veatch.
"We've been pretty much bootstrapped really over the last two and a half years," said Bhalerao.
“We've been lucky enough to generate some revenue through these 10 cities, these 10 pilots, that we've done, but we've not taken any investment until very recently.”
This investment is through IIM Ahmedabad’s Centre for Innovation Incubation & Entrepreneurship (CIIE) scheme, Start-up Oasis.
As well as India, the co-founder has his sights set on the US next.
“We see through Fluid AI really scaling up fast there, and the longer-term Fluid Health, which we will continue to deploy in India, Southeast Asia,” he says.
“So now we've started engaging with venture capitalists in India, in the US as well, to raise a round of funding to really launch both Fluid AI globally, and to continue our effort with Fluid Health in the developing market.”