Why We're Still Using Window Washers
After harrowing WTC incident, can't we leave this task to the robots?
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 14, 2014 9:43 AM CST
A partially collapsed scaffolding hangs from One World Trade Center in New York on Nov. 12, 2014.   (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
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(Newser) – The #WeCanLandOnACometButWeCant hashtag has dominated Twitter since the Philae probe landed Wednesday on the 67P comet, and the New York Times now considers its own related entry: In this technologically driven day and age, why can't we farm out window washing on skyscrapers to robots instead of humans? It's a question people are asking after Wednesday's heart-stopping rescue of two window washers who were briefly trapped in scaffolding on the side of One WTC after a cable issue. After all, the Times notes, wouldn't it make more sense to let nonliving bots take on the risk of plummeting hundreds of feet to the ground if something goes wrong? The bad news: Robots aren't up to the task. The good news: We don't have to fear the droid overlords taking over just yet.

Experts explain that robotic cleaning systems just aren't as good at scrubbing glass as people are. For one, they're not adept at getting rid of dirt that gets trapped in the corners of glass walls, a building exterior consultant tells the Times, leaving a "gray area around the rim of the window." A mechanical system was employed to clean the original WTC towers, but it did such a shoddy job that humans had to finish the work anyway, a Port Authority director says. Plus, window washers do other jobs (like fixing shattered windows—something a run-of-the-mill cleaning bot can't do), and today's skyscrapers are so complex in design that "a robot can't maneuver to get around those curves to get into the facets of the building," the consultant adds. So who is up to the challenge? "Fearless guys," many natives of South America, who make $26.89 an hour, plus benefits, per a union rep.