So let’s just suppose that after perfecting robot vacuum cleaners and military Terminator ‘bots the scientists will turn their attention to designing self-directed robots that can do high rise window cleaning and maintain buildings.
Am I worried?
1. Infinite variety
I’ve learned the hard way (which I humbly suggest is the best way) that no two jobs or buildings are the same.
Take it from me, architects aren’t thinking about how a building is going to be maintained when they hand in their plans.
If anything, the designs – and the access challenges they present – are becoming more and more complicated with each passing year, particularly where modifications and additions to heritage buildings are involved.
As I see it, there’s no programmer on earth who could punch in all the variables we encounter on a daily basis.
The level of site assessment and problem-solving required before we clean our first window or restore an area affected by concrete cancer cannot be understated.
It’s called experience, and no matter how much AI they pack into some rope-bot of the future, I’m confident I’ll be one step ahead.
2. Danger, Will Robinson! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWwOJlOI1nU)
You don’t need to be old enough to remember Lost In Space to appreciate that having fully-automated mechanical ‘bots performing perilous work 40 storeys above your head…well, it kinda makes you flinch, doesn’t it?
And I don’t care if they’re made of some super-light material, or can fly like drones.
The fact is, if a battery goes flat, a transistor fails, or a southerly buster hits, things could go wrong very quickly.
I, for one, don’t want to be standing between the ‘bot and ground zero when it does.
3. Manual dexterity
OK, so robots have moved on from welding cars to performing surgery. Impressive.
But you know what? They’re still doing it in largely static environments, with few external elements involved, using a programmed set of motions.
Window cleaning or building maintenance at heights?
That’s where you get constantly changing environments, frequent impact by external elements and hundreds of complex movements requiring strong, dexterous hands to move up, down, sideways, over, around, gripping this and swiping that.
While some might forget it, we’re reminded how incredible human motor skills are on a daily basis.
Amen to that.
Not Google Glass. Just plain glass.
Unless they come up with a robot made entirely of felt, I can’t see how anyone is going to feel comfortable having a machine cleaning windows when one processor glitch could have shards exploding everywhere.
5. Spatial awareness
Sure, I can imagine a robot physically (if that’s the right word) installing a safety system.
I just can’t see how it will select the right spot on the building to get all the angles and weight calculations right.
Talk to any abseiler who’s worked on buildings and they’ll tell you about anchor points that have been installed in the wrong place by non-experts.
Magnify the difficulty of a job and you magnify the time it takes to complete.
More time equals more cost and, potentially, greater danger.
Not a good equation.
6. Other awareness
One of the great benefits of having rope access technicians on your building is that we see things, often subtle, hard-to-detect things, that can be pre-emptively fixed before they get worse or pose a danger.
A robot’s going to do that for you?
7. Soft skills (Yes, I googled it)
Much of what we do with rope access cleaning and maintenance work is based on hard-won technical skills.
Around that, though, are the soft skills that all good operators have when liaising with clients.
That starts with having the communication skills to reach agreement on the scope of a job, and to keep the lines open as it progresses.
Then there is the teamwork necessary to make a job run smoothly and efficiently, the adaptability to respond to changing or unexpected conditions, the smarts to problem-solve on the run, and the ability to work through those changing conditions as they impact on the client.
I’m not aware of a robot that can yet come anywhere close to doing all those things, all so central to achieving professional results.
What if you’ve got someone as the go-between, you ask?
My answer. You’ll never improve on having someone who is actually on the ropes, putting everything into practice and completing the loop.