This startup’s robotic solutions help clean manholes, septic tanks, and pipelines

While preparing for his IIT-JEE exams, Divanshu Kumar wanted to study mechanical engineering at IIT-Kanpur. But fate had other plans. He missed the admission to the college by one mark and ended up at IIT-Madras instead.

Looking back, Kumar describes the turn of events as a blessing in disguise. His five years of study at IIT-Madras, where he earned a Bachelor of Technology in Mechanical Engineering and a Masters in Product Design, led him to become an entrepreneur and found two startups during his studies.

Divanshu Kumar and Moinak Banerjee – Co-founders of Solinas Integrity

The first startup, called Involve, founded in its second year, allows senior students to tutor and mentor their younger students from low-income families on a nine-month scholarship.

In his final year of college, Kumar worked on a project to develop a robot to clean manholes and septic tanks.

“I learned about the water and sanitation sector. Being a technology enthusiast, I found the project very interesting as it could solve many problems in the sector. We also received an award from the Prime Minister and I started thinking if it would be a good time for us to expand the project beyond a college project,” says Kumar.

This idea led to the birth of Solinas Integrity, a startup that emerged from IIT-Madras to develop deep climate technology solutions with sustainability at its core.

From university project to startup

Solinas was originally planned as a college project. Kumar remembers how his team presented the project to garbage collectors in Chennai.

“I could see them laughing after the presentation. It hurt my pride that the technology we developed was being laughed at. When they asked us if we had ever seen a manhole or septic tank being cleaned, I realized that we hadn't. They showed us how their nails and skin were affected and asked us to accompany them to a cleaning site at midnight,” he recalls.

Solinas

HomoSep

The visit sparked a deeper interest in finding the right products for this task.

The original prototype was designed as a bio-driven robotic vehicle that would travel into the septic tank, where the liquid was less dense and viscous. But the team realized that their solution would not work in manhole covers and septic tanks. This led to a newer prototype that worked well.

In 2018, Kumar and his professor were considering what to do next – whether to keep the prototype as a college project or pursue it as a startup. Around that time, Moinak Banerjee joined as a co-founder and they started building a team.

Kumar points out that cleaning septic tanks is just one of the problems in urban water and sanitation. Water and sanitation are interconnected and all the facilities, including water mains, drainage systems, septic tanks and sewer lines, are all underground. Their inspection and cleaning are not entirely manual; even today, these tasks sometimes require human intervention.

The idea was to use technology to figure out where the problem was so it could be solved faster. A sewer can overflow multiple times, so where did a blockage occur? Why did it happen? Is there a design problem underground? These challenges could be addressed by using data and robotics, the team concluded.

Far-reaching technical solutions

Solinas

EndoBot in action

Solinas Integrity has built HomeSep, India's first septic tank and manhole cleaning robot, equipped with cleaning blades, a suction mechanism, and storage and transport capabilities.

The team then developed EndoBot – a kind of “endoscopy” robot for all types of pipelines – water, wastewater, drainage – where the robot is sent into the system to examine conditions and defects, identify the exact problem and provide data on it.

The Endo90 can be used in pipes as small as 90mm in diameter, as most water pipes have a diameter between 80mm and 200mm. The Endo90 is already being used in 12 cities for pipe inspections.

“We faced another challenge: how do we clean the clogged horizontal sewer lines? To do this, we are developing the Rehabilitation Bot or R-Bot with a grant from ACT. This will be a game changer for us, because until now there has been no real solution for cleaning horizontal systems,” explains Kumar.

The grant from ACT for Environment will help Solinas accelerate the development and adoption of the R-Bot among municipalities and O&M (operation and maintenance) stakeholders.

In addition to these innovations, Solinas Integrity has also launched Swasth, a cloud AI digital dashboard for condition assessment and data management to identify defect coding, defect classification and risk assessment. It provides GIS tagging of defect location and pipeline auditing.

The data collected via EndoBot is processed and a custom report is created in the Swasth dashboard.

These micro-level insights will help predict challenges and take timely action, says Kumar.

Swasth has already been deployed by several private companies and the startup hopes to expand its customer base soon.

“We have provided free access to the government in some places, but since it is a technology-intensive solution, it will take some time to roll out,” Kumar notes.

The benefits of privatization

He points out that privatization has brought players on board who are now laying pipelines and are responsible for operations and maintenance. He believes that now is the right time for Solinas Integrity to intensify its efforts.

“Privatization has worked very well for us because once they (the private players) know that there is a technology that can reduce their labor costs and deliver data, they will jump on the bandwagon.

“Secondly, the government's investments in measures like the abolition of manual sanitation, the Jal Jeevan Mission and the Amruth Mission are creating a lot of buzz in this sector. In addition, there is also massive investment in infrastructure in this sector,” he explains.

In terms of social impact, Solinas' robotic products not only help eliminate manual waste disposal entirely, but they also help identify contaminants, locate specific problems and provide solutions.

“In Hubbali, we have worked with L&T to identify and resolve contamination, leaks and blockages. Around 1,000 households in urban slums that had been without water for nearly two years have finally got drinking water. Technology like this can be a game changer for cities as we can save around 400,000 to 600,000 litres of water per inspection kilometre,” he explains.

Solinas has rolled out its solutions in over 15 cities across nine states. The company has also started bidding for tenders to work directly with the government and has raised funding in seven rounds so far.

“Our main focus is India, but we have already started exploring the Middle East and Southeast Asia markets. One of our scaling strategies is to move from smaller to larger order volumes. We are targeting projects in excess of a million, which will further increase our revenues,” says Kumar.

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