Pune-based Fluid Robotics uses robots to manage and maintain urban water infrastructure

In India, the current urban water distribution and wastewater treatment network is inefficient, with 40-50 per cent of water lost in distribution due to leaks and illegal taps (Non-Revenue Water). Under 20 per cent of wastewater is collected and treated, while the rest pollutes groundwater, lakes, rivers, and coastlines. In addition, inadequate data on both water loss and pollution forces local governments to further build dams and source ‘new’ water, directing resources away from redeveloping and maintaining the city’s water infrastructure.

Fluid Robotics was born in August 2016 out of Asim Bhalerao’s experiences upon his return to Mumbai from the Silicon Valley. He noticed residential societies and office premises regularly put up signboards saying ‘No water from 9am to 5pm’ due to problems with the pipeline network.

After digging deeper, Bhalerao found that the government lacked proper maps of the pipes, which led to sometimes digging for weeks. Once they reached the pipe surface, they used an age-old technique with sounding rods that helped them understand if the pipe was ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

This inspired Bhalerao to use Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered solutions to diagnose water and wastewater pipeline networks to address the growing urban issues of water loss and water pollution. Fluid Robotics claims to be the first company in India to use technology to address water issues.

Multi-sensor robots
The company currently develops multi-sensor robots that can inspect pipes as small as six inches in diameter and as large as 5×5 metre tunnels. The product is deployed in two critical areas:

  • For better pipeline asset management
  • For cleaner lakes and rivers

Bhalerao said, “We take product usability very seriously and have made it easy to use for people who may have no technical background.”

AI capabilities have been built to let machines do the fault detection instead of staff, allowing for seamless data acquisition and visualisation while preventing data manipulation. The technology not only removes the human component in the dirty and dangerous job of inspecting deep pipelines, but it also reduces human effort in data interpretation.

Fluid Robotics relies on “Robot-as-a-Service” business model, wherein the company charges based on project scope or through subscriptions. This is similar to the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model, but robots (hardware + software) are offered as a service/subscription to customers on an annual basis.

Add-on services include topographic surveys, flow surveys, hydrological and hydraulic modelling, which tie in directly with offerings for river and lake rejuvenation projects.

Pricing varies based on the size of the pipes and the complexity of the work. For example, inspecting new pipelines for quality vs locating blockages in unmapped deep sewers. To work with the government and offer solutions through tenders, Fluid Robotics formed strategic partnerships with large private companies in different geographies.

AI to solve water pollution
For the first time in India, robotics and AI was deployed to solve river and lake pollution problems through the company’s work with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM). Bhalerao said, “With our first two projects with MCGM (Powai lake and Mithi River rejuvenation), we have been able to help them intercept, divert, and treat over 400 MLD of untreated wastewater previously entering water bodies, without the need to build new treatment capacity. We have also been able to prevent thousands of hours of manual scavenging and identify over 20 MLD of water leaks.”

The company has been able to take the river and lake rejuvenation model to more cities across India including Pune, Hyderabad, and Bengaluru as an ideal solution for urban water pollution problems. Fluid Robotics has also garnered top recognition in the Water Automation & Instrumentation category at the 2018 Water Awards in New Delhi.

The nature of its work, which required teams to be on the ground round the clock often in areas that are impacted the most because of water pollution, was a challenge, explained Bhalerao.

“Some of our sites have been deep inside slums where residents have kept their home/shop lights on so our teams can navigate through them easily at night, also occasionally engaging with us in a game of carom or cricket. Their support has been both humbling and rewarding.”

Nidhi Jain, Director, Fluid Robotics, added, “It has been a difficult journey learning to navigate Indian government systems after a decade of living in Silicon Valley and introducing cutting-edge technologies to solve some of the country’s fundamental challenges with water resource management. However, we have received exceptional support from a few local governments and start-up accelerators.”

Bhalerao believes that problems with water and wastewater are interlinked and need to be solved together if the country is to have readily accessible water and zero water pollution. He said, “One company can’t solve these problems single-handedly. Collaborations are vital to bringing about large-scale impact in the water space.”