Getting robots in to clean high-rise windows

There are some jobs that are strictly for risk-takers; police work, firefighting, Alaskan crab fishing (according to statistics), and, of course, high-rise window washing. While the world is likely to continue needing police officers and firefighters, and trappers will continue …

There are some jobs that are strictly for risk-takers; police work, firefighting, Alaskan crab fishing (according to statistics), and, of course, high-rise window washing.

While the world is likely to continue needing police officers and firefighters, and trappers will continue to brave the cold waters of Alaska to find the pricey crabs, high-rise window washers could become a thing of the past thanks to Israeli company Skybot.

Skybot’s robotic window washing system gets high-rise windows cleaned faster and cheaper than human teams, and at much less risk to human life.

Washing windows on skyscrapers is harrowing work. Injuries or death from falls, while not common, occur frequently enough; on average, about 70 window washers – mostly non-unionized and using substandard equipment – die each year in the US, while another 130 are injured (the injury and fatality rate among unionized workers is far lower).

Scaling the heights

The greatest hazard in the care and cleaning of tall buildings is, of course, gravity. There are a number of methods used to clean building exteriors, depending on whether they are made of steel, stone, or other materials, ranging from pressure hosing using cleaning chemicals to old-fashioned soap and water using big brushes. Almost all methods, however, require trained service personnel to scale the heights of buildings, usually using scaffolds suspended from above the building, a platform connected to the ground, or from the booth of a cherry picker.

And since window-washers – and hopefully their employers – want the work done in as safe a manner as possible, cleaning must take place during daylight hours, preferably in fair or good weather. If it’s too windy or stormy, the work just won’t get done – meaning an extra expense for building management, who have to pay staff, and schedule delays in getting important maintenance work done.

According to Skybot’s Yoram Barmohay, it’s far more efficient to use robotics. Skybot’s system, “combines the most advanced artificial intelligence technology and plain low-tech common sense,” Barmohay tells ISRAEL21c. “The robots allow a fully automatic and consistent cleaning process, much more efficiently and better than any human team can accomplish.”

The Skybot system consists of a computer which controls the Building Maintenance Unit (BMU), the hanging scaffolds used by workers, to position the robot in the right place to carry out its assignment.

Once the robot is positioned, the computer controls the robot’s operations, analyzing the results through a variety of sensors. Using mostly distilled water and environmentally friendly detergents, the system applies a mechanized pad to the window and cleans, using innovative adhesion technology developed by Skybot to ensure maximum surface contact. After that, the robot wipes away the excess – and hey presto, your windows are clean.

There’s no chance of a worker slipping, since there’s no worker to slip – and the robot, made of light, anodized aluminum, is connected to the BMU, solidly rooted to the ground, roof, or side of the building.

Every day is a workday

As the system cleans an area of the building, it can also dry a previously treated area – making Skybot quicker than human alternatives. “Our system can clean a surface of 500 square meters in an hour, compared to 250 square meters a human team can cover on a workday,” says Barmohay.

And office work stays private. “It’s unnerving to see a person looking at your business from the outside when you’re on the 45th floor,” Barmohay adds.

And for Skybot’s robots, every day is a workday. “Our system can operate in any weather, in winds up to 45 miles per hour, day or night. And the system works just as well in hot or cold weather,” Barmohay says, adding that Skybot can clean in a week what it takes a human team a month to cover.

The Rishon LeZion based company was founded in 2000, and the first robot was installed in a Tel Aviv building in early 2002. The technology has been tested in Israel during hot August weather, as well as in several European locations, in the middle of winter. Currently, the system is deployed in the Netherlands, among other places, he says.

“With the major construction of skyscrapers over the past 40 years, builders and managers have been searching for a safe, efficient cleaning system, and although some progress has been made, there has never been a system like Skybot’s,” says Barmohay.

“We’ve had thousands of hours of experience cleaning windows, and at this point, we can clean a small building in perhaps an hour – instead of the day it usually takes.” Not to mention the success Skybot has had with behemoth buildings in Israel and Europe.

After extensive tests, the company is ready for mass production of the system. Barmohay says a host of investors, as well as the Chief Scientist’s Office, have supported the project – and all of them have no doubt that Skybot’s system will “clean up” the high-rise window washing business worldwide.

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