Robots to clean NYC skyscrapers

High flying window cleaning is dangerous work. Automation may soon reduce the risk.

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Skyline

Window cleaners are a common sight in New York City, where they work high above the sidewalk dexterously cleaning skyscraper windows. It's a transfixing sight, and it's also an incredibly dangerous job. It's also one that may soon fall to robots. 

That's thanks to a new agreement between the developers of a window washing robot named Ozmo and Platinum, a building maintenance service provider in New York.  

Human window washers are transfixing to watch in action, but the work is incredibly dangerous. During one 15 year period, OSHA tracked 88 window washing accidents, a full 62 of which resulted in fatalities. That grim statistic highlights the thin margin of error when sometimes working hundreds of feet above the ground.

Automation can address safety concerns and lead to greater efficiency in a task that hasn't had a substantial technological update in decades. The use case makes a lot of sense: managers of every commerce building in major U.S. cities need some way to clean their building's exterior glass. In fact, window cleaning is a $40B global market. The surfaces involved are generally uniform and the path predictable. It's a perfect recipe for successful robotics development with a proven customer base.

"Facade maintenance is integral to the health and spirit of a building," says Michael Brown, CEO & chairman, Skyline Robotics, maker of Ozmo. "Automation is poised to play a key role in the future of façade access work as it will both increase efficiency and reduce risk, and this is just the beginning."

The system combines artificial intelligence, machine learning, and computer vision with a robotic arm designed by KUKA, a leader in industrial robots. Ozmo uses a force sensor and knows how fragile glass is, and AI helps the system remain stable, even in gusty conditions. The system utilizes lidar, scanning a building's facade, memorizing surfaces and planning a cleaning path -- which it continually updates.

"The application puts several of the latest advancements in robotics to work in a new and exciting business sector and brings efficiency and safety to building maintenance," says John Bubnikovich, North America chief regional officer for KUKA Robotics. "Advancements that made such a daunting task possible include on-the-fly control of the KUKA robots in terms of pressure applied during the cleaning process as well as the ability to compensate for a moving scaffolding due to weather and changing architectural building features."

Platinum will add Ozmo operations to its existing window cleaning division, Palladium Window Solutions. Skyline Robotics, which recently secured $6M in funding, will train the Platinum staff and certify them as Ozmo operators. The Platinum staff will then run the operations of the Ozmo system.

"Platinum's commitment to driving innovation and adopting new technology is paramount to our market-leading success," said James Halpin, CEO, Platinum. "Thus Skyline, whose DNA is based on innovation, is an ideal partner as its cutting-edge technology will help us further increase our market share and remain one step ahead of the competition."