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Window-Washing Robots Scaling Skyscrapers in Manhattan

August 14th, 2023

Skyline Robotics is revolutionizing the century-old practice of window washing with innovative technology that seeks to reshape a traditionally risky industry.

Their cutting-edge window-washing robot, named Ozmo, is now operational in both Tel Aviv and New York City. Ozmo has already undertaken projects on prominent Manhattan landmarks such as 10 Hudson Yards, 383 Madison, 825 3rd Avenue, and 7 World Trade Center. These endeavors are the result of collaborations between Skyline Robotics and Platinum, the city's largest commercial window cleaning service, as well as real estate giant The Durst Organization.

The machine is suspended from the side of towering skyscrapers. A robotic arm, fitted with a brush, deftly cleans the windows based on instructions relayed by a LiDAR camera. This camera employs laser technology to map out the 3D environment, meticulously detailing the building's exterior and identifying the window parameters.

Ross Blum, the President and Chief Operating Officer, elaborated, "What the LiDAR is actually doing as the basket is descending is sort of painting itself a picture of the facade that it’s facing."

Although a human operator currently controls Ozmo from the building's summit, Blum envisions a future where the robot could be managed entirely remotely. "That person, other than regulation, doesn’t actually have to be there for our sake," Blum explained. "We could, in theory, remote-control Ozmo from different parts of the world."

The water purification process, known as reverse osmosis, lends its name to Ozmo. This method enhances the efficiency of the cleaning process. Blum clarified and they achieve perfectly clean windows with a single motion, eliminating the need for separate squeegees and brushes.

At present, the cost of an Ozmo robot stands at approximately $500,000. Skyline Robotics board member and Platinum CEO James Halpin stated that building owners can expect a return on investment within three to five years.

Shifting Work Dynamics

Ozmo is emblematic of a new wave of technology that can replicate human tasks. Recent advancements in artificial intelligence, such as ChatGPT, have sparked discussions about the vulnerability of jobs in customer service, writing, and computer programming.

According to a 2020 report by the World Economic Forum, the "robot revolution" will displace around 85 million jobs by 2025. However, the report also predicts the generation of 97 million jobs that will necessitate "reskilling and retraining."

A study conducted in 2016 by the Brookings Institution categorized maintenance and construction roles, including window washing, as having a "medium" proportion of tasks (30% to 70%) that are susceptible to automation.

Halpin from Platinum emphasized the Ozmo's importance in addressing the labor shortage in high-rise window washing. "Currently, we are experiencing a labor shortage in all real blue-collar fields in New York City,," Halpin noted. "We could hire another 20% just to keep up with the current work that we have at this point."

Both Halpin and Blum share the long-term goal of not replacing human workers, but rather "retraining and reassigning" window washers to operate this technology. However, from a logistical standpoint, Ozmo streamlines the cleaning process, reducing the number of personnel required from a team of three to four human window washers down to a single operator.

Notably, the introduction of Ozmo has raised concerns among some window washers. Jose Nieves, a seasoned industry professional with 23 years of experience, and a window washer at Rockefeller Center, is apprehensive about the potential impact on their livelihoods. Nieves contends that while their profession carries inherent risks, they are skilled and trained workers who approach their job with the same seriousness as other hazardous occupations in the country. He questions the safety of using robots to operate heavy equipment hundreds of feet above people's heads.

Nieves is represented by SEIU 32BJ, a property service union for numerous East Coast workers. According to the organization, there are 500 to 550 unionized window washers in New York City, earning $31.69 per hour during the peak summer season.

“As a society, we should not be cutting costs on the backs of workers,” Nieves said. “I would say we have been doing a great job without these robots. Don’t fix it unless it’s broken.”

A Collaborative Future of Humans and Robots

Futurists, including Aleksandra Przegalińska, a senior research associate at Harvard's Labor and Worklife Program, explore the potential collaboration between humans and robots. They specifically investigate how machines can handle monotonous or perilous tasks on behalf of humans.

While the Ozmo technology is still relatively new, Przegalińska acknowledges the potential of diverting human labor from hazardous fields. She cites instances like the deployment of machines, such as the Moxi, to deliver medication to infected patients during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. "Certainly, in those areas where your health, your existence is at risk as a human, using a machine, a robot is something worth considering," Przegalińska asserts.

Skyline Robotics embarked on the Ozmo project in 2017, securing $6.5 million in pre-Series A funding and a grant from the Israeli government. The company's total funding to date amounts to $12.9 million, with a recent $3.35 million funding round concluded on August 7, as per the company's press release.

Source: CNBC

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