Robots Cleaning Windows Where Humans Dare Not Reach

Stefan Spanjer leads a team of 8 enthusiastic young entrepreneurs, all (former) students studying mechanical engineering at the University of Twente in Enschede. In November 2015 they came out of stealth mode, successfully demonstrating a window-cleaning robot on the side of a high-rise glass building on the campus. Since then the phone hasn’t stopped ringing. Jonathan Marks went to investigate.

Stefan Spanjer

Stefan Spanjer, CEO KITE-Robotics

Common Challenge Shared by Building Owners

“Owners of tens of millions of high-rise buildings on this planet share the same challenge”, explains Stefan. “Because everyone inside their building expects the windows to be kept clean.”

Yet the job of cleaning windows on tall buildings ranks as one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

In fact, the profession is a paradox. The cleaning job is unskilled, with low-wages, it is tedious and never ends. Yet cleaning glass on top of a city skyscraper demands incredible balance, concentration, and you can only do it without any fear of heights.

So why did your team decide to disrupt the global market in industrial window cleaning?

“Because there’s never been as much glass in modern architecture. Many smart technologies are rolling out to make buildings more energy efficient and safer. Yet high-rise window cleaning hasn’t changed in a hundred years. Until now, that is. So I’m leading a team of engineers and designers who believe a robot can do a much better, faster job of cleaning windows.”

“High-rise building owners in the Netherlands challenged us to replace a job no-one really wants with an autonomous robot that cleans windows, frames and facades 5 times faster. It really does more than that, because our robot cleans where humans never dare to reach…it may be too dangerous or simply inaccessible.”

Building the intelligence is the hardest part

“The job of the window cleaner changes from being someone hanging in a basket on the side of a building into a logistics manager. The operator sets up our device on the side of the building. The robot has on-board intelligence to complete the rest. Having set the robot, the cleaning manager could move on to set up the next robot. It’s an autonomous system. Our prototype is packed with sensors, so it not only knows its position, it can interpret the weather conditions. So if the wind gets too high, it simply shuts down and parks itself until the weather improves". One of the videos explains the procedure in more detail.

The robot is suspended in between four synthetic-fibre industrial strength cables. It uses demineralized water for cleaning and to avoid leaving any unsightly stripes. The device is pre-programmed with the exact dimensions of the building. So using built-in sensors it knows its exact position but also how hard the brushes are pressing against the window.

“To get this right takes a lot of precision engineering, smart software and prototyping. We started as a group of students and volunteers in 2012, but soon realized that if we could solve the various challenges we were on to something big. We analysed the use of suction pads at first, but quickly abandoned them because they require a very smooth surface. Any slight unevenness in the window surface and the suction cup falls off. We switched to designing a cable support. Should one of them snap for any reason, the remaining 3 will safely lower the robot down to the ground surface. There is never any danger to people who may be walking on streets below the robot.

Cleaning 5 times faster

Business Model Canvas

"Building owners are showing more interest in hiring our robotic window cleaning service 4-6 times a year rather than owning the robots. In many cities, the increasing air pollutions means windows need cleaning more often. New building contractors can also save money because the expensive and unsightly cranes for supporting the window-cleaning basket are no longer needed.

Our prototype is already out there, demonstrating that it can clean all kinds of buildings in The Netherlands. But once we hit the headlines, several famous building owners called us from Qatar to Seattle. They’ve invited us to clean their building to validate our proposition. And of course, we’re delighted to accept!"

So what’s next?

"2016 will be an important year for our startup. The technology is proven now and the software is robust. The challenge now is to find the right supply chain partners to build the machines on a large scale. The homework on the cost of ramping up is done, so we’re looking for more international partners and investors to scale the company to meet global demand. It’s all good clean fun." 

For more details on what’s happening, I invite StartupDelta readers to check out our website and get in touch with me directly. 

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