Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Robot That Breathes Life Into AC Ducts

“To regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.”
—Albert Einstein
          For commercial set-ups such as shopping malls and office complexes, which mostly have centrally air-conditioned environments, getting air-conditioners’ ducts cleaned has hitherto remained a challenge. The reasons are multiple. The equipment required to clean the ducts of these air-conditioners (ACs) are extremely expensive and bulky.
Manually doing this job is tedious and risky for the health of the person getting into these ducts. Considering that the ducts have a narrow passage, invariably, children are put into these dust-filled tunnels for cleaning—a practice that’s illegal.
Apart from these issues, the choking of AC ducts over time affects the quality of the air circulated by the AC. It also leads to more power consumption and in some cases even breakdown of the air-conditioning system.
To address these problems, Robo-soft Systems has developed DuctBot—a toy car-sized robot that measures 23 cm in length, 19 cm in width and 9 cm in height. Priced at Rs 100,000, the device is claimed to cost five times less than the versions available globally.
Some vital statistics
DuctBot is a skid-steer drive gadget weighing 2 kg. It includes high-intensity LED light and charge-coupled device (CCD) colour camera to inspect the duct and provide a live feed. The vehicle moves on wheels and has attachments for cleaning the duct. It is fitted with a motor that can be controlled and switched on and off by supplying differential voltage. The device can be controlled wirelessly using Sony PS2 joystick.
A small slot in the duct is enough to put compact DuctBot inside and inspect air ducting condition of the flooring. DuctBot can go into spaces as tight as 9.6×17.8 cm² (4×7 square inches) in cross section. Once it is inside the air duct from one end, it blows compressed air in the duct helping the filter attached at the other end to collect the dust.
The vehicle moves on wheels and has attachments for cleaning the duct. It is fitted with a motor that can be controlled and switched on and off by supplying differential voltage.
A four-member team worked on building the device, which took four years of R&D. “The device can go where no man can go and no man wants to go. What makes DuctBot one-of-its-kind product in India is that the other alternatives available are bulky, very difficult to carry and control, and require the user to be trained prior to operating these. Our system is light and easy to carry in flight. Besides, no training is required to show how a PS2 joystick works,” says Fahad Azad, managing partner, Robosoft Systems.
The technology that drives the DuctBot
“DuctBot is completely made from off-the-shelf systems available across the world. We have tried to make varied technologies work in sync with each other. It is a combination of mechanical, electronics and software engineering. The robot is designed in CAD software using embedded systems and microcontrollers and is programmed in embedded C. Our main consideration while designing the robot in CAD was whether it will be possible for us to write the code for the performance desired from the product, and will the electronics system be reliable in varied conditions?” says Azad.
“We have tried to make the device as cost-effective as possible so that the users can recover the cost of the machine in much lesser time. They can discard their old machine and go for a new one, instead of buying heavily engineered machines, which are high in maintenance and use components that become obsolete or expensive to get after some years,” he adds.
The scenario and market for duct cleaners in India
How healthy is the AC environment you are exposed to?
Azad has a tip to share: “If you go to any centrally air-conditioned environment and happen to see automated air fresheners on the walls spraying the freshener regularly, it is an indication that the air quality is bad and the content of dust is so high that there is bacteria growth in the duct, causing odour in the air.
“If there is no dust in the duct, there will never be bacteria and pollen formation. Just changing air filters regularly is not the solution to this problem; the ducts need to be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.”
Are people aware of the importance of having a duct cleaner? To this, Azad says, “The issue in India is that there is no regulation or policy of the government that makes it mandatory to check and maintain indoor air quality—mostly because air-conditioning is relatively new in India. Other countries have strict regulations and quality controls, which are essential to comply with for any establishment. Companies in India do it on their own as it reduces electricity consumption and bad odour from environments.”
To market the product, RoboSoft uses the Internet as the key medium. “Our main market is the Middle East, followed by the US, Europe and Southeast-Asian countries. Our key customers include Blue Star in India and EPSCO in the Middle East,” shares Azad.
What’s in the offing?
The company has not filed for any patents so far as the team feels that the international process is very expensive and the Indian patent system is not so strong. “We intend to file for a patent soon. Right now we are bootstraped. We believe that it is the customers who bring in the money in India and not the patents. If it were software, we could have licensed it to users,” says Azad.
Azad also shares some of the other plans related to the future versions of the device: “We are planning to launch a new version of the device named DuctBot HD. It will come with an HD 1080i camera, which offers a full high-definition recording capability compared to the CCD colour camera used in the existing product.
“We have also designed a very small robot fitted with a night vision camera and microphone for National Security Guards commandos. This robot can be dropped inside any room or building before going in to preview the place. We are looking for agencies who can help us sell our products to the government.”

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