India has a limited set of testing kits and hundreds of thousands of asymptomatic carriers of the virus. This makes tracking the extent of the COVID-19 outbreak a challenging endeavour. With the lockdown relaxing across the country, and no significant progress in mass screening, India could be caught unaware with an exponential increase in cases.
To combat this issue, Pune-based social entrepreneurs, Asim Bhalerao and Nidhi Jain, co-founders of Fluid Robotics have designed a robot that can track the outbreak of COVID-19 through wastewater systems.
When Fluid Robotics was established in 2016, they developed robots to map and inspect underground pipeline systems to increase the efficiency of water supply and wastewater management. The global pandemic has provided Asim and his team a new avenue to leverage their robotic systems for good.
Adopting an Epidemiological Approach
Breakthrough research in the Netherlands showed that the virus could be detected in wastewater. Asim shares that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be detected in the faecal matter of the infected individual, several weeks after their throat or nasal swab comes back negative.
In a vastly populated country like India where detection of the infectious disease is crucial but limited, Asim’s robotic system can be mobilised to identify infected individuals and outbreaks in communities. This system will help in creating a more accurate map of the infected areas that can be cordoned off to prevent the disease from spreading.
Asim has partnered with a 100-year-old U.S based company, Black & Veatch who are experts in wastewater-based epidemiology. With their assistance, Fluid Robotics has developed sampling and testing protocols to ensure quick, efficient, and safe monitoring to track COVID-19 outbreaks across large populations.
Robots Take Over
The robots developed by Fluid Robotics are designed to access sewers. They collect and store wastewater samples following international COVID-19 guidelines, ensuring the RNA is preserved during the entire process.
“The robot can collect a sample from location A, go upstream to map out the catchment area, and narrow down where the outbreak is.” – Asim Bhalerao
The robots have detachable modules that are periodically sent to the microbiology/epidemiology laboratory for testing. Using the RT-PCR technique, the sample is studied to identify the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Currently, through local partnerships, Asim and his team are piloting the project in Mumbai which has the highest number of cases in India. They will soon expand to other cities. You can also initiate a collaboration with them.
The Future of Healthcare
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is not the only virus that the robotic system can detect. The technology can be expanded to detect new as well as recurring infections thus helping the healthcare system to prevent or prepare for further outbreaks.
Investing in such technologically advanced systems can benefit manpower-strapped agencies to channel their resources to effectively provide healthcare without the burden of identification & detection.
Asim highlights the instances where health workers and police personnel faced resistance to screen people for COVID-19. In such locations, the Fluid Robotics system can collect samples from the wastewater networks to check for the virus in a non-invasive way.
With the vaccine for the COVID-19 being seemingly far, Fluid Robotics’ system can be replicated and scaled, not only across India but also across the globe.
Mapping the Next Steps
The current robotic system can test a population of about 8 million by October 2020. Asim is looking for investors and grants to scale his existing system and conduct more tests. With the needed investment, Asim can test entire cities including metropolitans such as Mumbai and Pune.
The Fluid Robotics team has been working to publish their work on Covid-19 as well as share their wastewater management techniques on a public domain so that people have access to their research and can adapt this approach for work in other areas.