It saves lives, is three times faster and never misses a spot
Robots using the technology that powers driverless cars are cleaning the windows of some of the world’s tallest buildings.
They can work around the clock, leave no streaks and, unlike their human colleagues, never miss a job.
But more important than all of that… they save lives.
According to Michael Brown, CEO and chairman of Tel Aviv-based Skyline Robotics, the “dirty, boring and dangerous” work of cleaning steel and glass skyscrapers has claimed thousands of lives. “The problem, to put it simply, is that cleaning windows at height is extremely dangerous.”
Robots do the job much better, they can do it at least three times faster, and they mean human lives are no longer at risk.
Other companies have experimented with automated window cleaning solutions, mostly with rollers, like a car wash. But they’re hit-and-miss when it comes to actually getting windows clean, and they’re not designed for buildings over 10 stories.
Skyline proudly refers to its machine, dubbed Ozmo, as “the world’s first high-rise window cleaning robot.”
It is lowered in a basket from the crane-like device (or building maintenance unit) common to all tall buildings.
Ozmo then works its way down the side of the building, using its own version of driverless car technology to map the facade and clean it with soap-free, deionized water. It is then moved sideways to begin its next descent until the entire building is complete.
“Window cleaning is the worst job in the world,” Brown tells NoCamels. “It’s so dangerous you can’t believe the heat. The sun shines through the windows and you literally feel like you are in an oven.”
When the wind starts to blow, the basket sways, and anything over 40 km/h is generally considered too dangerous for window cleaners to work on.
Brown worked in business equipment before selling to Office Depot and then Staples for big money ($400 million and $300 million, respectively).
It was 2019, he had signed a seven-year “non-compete” clause and was looking for a new challenge.
“I drove in New York City, which obviously has an incredible amount of tall buildings,” he says. “And I said to myself, I can’t believe people are still washing windows by hand. Why don’t they use robots?”
He teamed up with Avi Abadi, who founded Skyline Robotics in 2017 and had already prototyped the technology using lidar (light detection and ranging), force sensors that give it a sense of touch and sight, and advanced algorithms to create optimal cleaning paths to calculate. It scans building surfaces in an intricate way, remembering every curve and edge.
“I came in and we then tried to commercialize the product,” says Brown. “My experience in business is what compelled Avi and the board to let me join and try to take this company to where it needed to be.”
The robots have meanwhile been tried and tested, patents have been applied for and are being used diligently. Last month, the company announced an investment deal with real estate giant Durst Ventures, a subsidiary of The Durst Organization, which owns some of New York City’s most notable buildings.
These include the 104-story One World Trade Center – the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere – the new World Trade Center 7, rebuilt after the Twin Towers tragedy, and the 55-story Bank of America Tower, also known as 1 Bryant Park.
There are 68,000 buildings worldwide that are tall enough to have the BMU (Building Maintenance Unit) supporting the baskets that the robots can pick up.
“We are launching it very strategically first with the largest developers in New York. Because New York is the most regulated market in the world for working at height,” says Brown.
He is also interested in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates, home to the world’s tallest building, the 160-story, 828-meter Burj Khalifa, and many other super skyscrapers.
Brown is busy disrupting a $40 billion window cleaning industry that he says has done little to keep up with the ever-growing tally of skyscrapers.
Recruiting human window cleaners today is harder than ever. It just doesn’t appeal to the younger generation, which is why three quarters of US window cleaners are over 40 years old.
“The robot can clean three to four times faster than a human, does not need to go to the toilet or take a break. He can also clean at night,” says Brown.
The work is tedious. He says it would take 66 business days to clean all the windows in a typical skyscraper like the 57-story 10 Hudsons Yard on Manhattan’s West Side.
A robot that works three times as fast and works three shifts a day could get the job done in a fraction of the time. And they can work in pairs or threes or even fours, all in the same big basket and all synchronized so they don’t get in each other’s way.
As for the human window cleaners, Brown says there are many employment opportunities for them to control the robots, move them between locations, or redeploy them.
Going forward, Skyline wants to get the most out of its robots by getting them to inspect building facades for damage, leaks, broken windows, and other maintenance issues.
“We’re up there anyway, recording data all day. That way we are able to tell them where their building is from a health perspective,” he says.
There are also plans to adapt the robots to clean ships, planes, or other large or challenging structures.