Will Robots Replace Window Washers?

Skyline Robotics' Michael Brown and Durst's Douglas Durst with Skyline’s Ozmo robot (Skyline Robotics, the Durst Organization, Getty)

Skyline Robotics’ Michael Brown and Durst’s Douglas Durst with Skyline’s Ozmo robot (Skyline Robotics, the Durst Organization, Getty)

New York is home to some of the most advanced high-rises in the world, but still relies on dangling men with squeegees to keep their glass facades clean. The Durst Organization and Skyline Robotics aim to change that.

The Tel-Aviv-based tech firm designs automated window-cleaning robots that look like Swiffers on steroids. The orange machines are shaped like arms with water jets and squeegee pads for hands. As they descend skyscrapers in metal baskets, they spritz and wipe — like their human predecessors have for decades, but with no need for bathroom breaks or occasional rescues.

Still in the startup phase, Skyline has received a boost from Durst Ventures, the proptech and venture capital arm of the Durst Organization.

Durst and Skyline declined to disclose the size of the investment, but Skyline CEO Michael Brown said it comes with the intention of deploying Skyline’s technology across Durst’s New York properties. Skyline is mapping out the firm’s facades, including at the 1,776-foot One World Trade Center.

The former Freedom Tower has dealt with cleaning difficulties in the past, including a 2014 incident in which two window washers were stuck for over an hour on a dangling scaffold at the 69th floor. Skyline, whose advisory board includes Silverstein Properties CEO Marty Burger, aims to start robotic cleanings there around March.

The deal is Skyline’s largest step in breaking into the city’s highly regulated maintenance business. It still has a long way to go before the city’s skyscraper facades are whizzing with robotic maids. Before the Durst investment, the company had raised a modest $9.5 million, including a $6.5 million seed round, according to Crunchbase.

A spokesperson for Durst, whose website lists 20 properties in the city, declined to comment.

Skyline faces the same hurdles as other proptech firms looking to change the construction business, notably organized labor and regulators. In New York, construction is a major business for unions, and any technology that could replace humans with robots is bound to trigger a conversation with them.

Skyline was not oblivious to that. In November, it signed a distribution deal with Platinum Inc., a New York construction services firm that claims to serve more than half of the city’s Class A office buildings. As a union shop, it connects the robotics company to some of the city’s most powerful unions. Last year, window cleaners represented by 32BJ SEIU reached a three-year deal with the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations.

The traditional window cleaning team consists of two people in the basket working the squeegees and a third person on the roof. Skyline’s Ozmo requires a single human operator who earns a higher wage as a robot technician. A window cleaner moving to that role would need to be trained as a technician.

Brown said the robots will free up a dwindling cleaner workforce to take on other assignments.

“Those two other people are not out of work — [they] are picking up the jobs that [the union] can’t fill,” he said. A spokesperson for the union did not comment by press time.

Some window cleaners undoubtedly would not mind a different gig. They work out of baskets that dangle dozens of stories in the air — a far hotter, windier and scarier workplace than the average.

While window cleaners are not particularly prone to accidents relative to other construction and maintenance workers, the consequences of one can be grave: More than half have been fatal, according to OSHA records of the 102 window cleaning accidents in the U.S. reported to the agency in the past 20 years.

New York’s labor laws — such as the so-called scaffold law, which covers gravity-related accidents — include specific protections for window cleaners. That contributes to big lawsuit settlements and exceptionally high insurance costs for building owners and contractors.

“You really have to prove very little to make out such a case,” said Kenneth Wilhelm, a New York personal injury attorney. “The window washer could be 99 percent at fault, but if the owner or manager is just 1 percent at fault, then the window washer can recover 100 percent of their damages from the owner or manager.”

Subcontracting out the cleaning job does not spare an owner from liability, Wilhelm added.

If the window cleaning venture works out, Brown says Skyline wants to expand into polishing, masonry and inspecting.

“Window washing for us is really only the beginning,” Brown said. “We want to own the whole facade.”

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