Yes, Autonopia does do windows

Vancouver-based start-up company increases safety and efficiency of high-rise window-cleaning.

Using methods virtually unchanged since the 1930s, high-rise window cleaning is in line for a facelift.

Autonopia, a small business, is developing a first-of-its-kind robot that can safely rappel all types of building surfaces much faster than humans.

Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Dr. Hossein Kamali is on a mission to bring the high-rise window-cleaning business into the 21st century, keeping people safe in the process. As a Mitacs fellow and postdoctoral researcher in Mechatronic Systems Engineering at Simon Fraser University, he has continued working to advance his company’s product despite the challenges of a worldwide pandemic.

The “human-like device” mimics the behaviour of human window cleaners — including getting into the nooks and crannies of all types of building facades. The disruptive, patent-pending robot combines artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, mechatronics, and motion-control technology.

How to reduce human risk of window cleaning?

The idea for a window cleaning robot was born when Autonopia Co-founder and CEO Mohammad Dabiri witnessed a traumatizing incident firsthand while in a high-rise office building in Southeast Asia. “It felt absurd that people were putting their lives at risk, just to clean windows,” Dabiri says. “If you compare how the Empire State Building was cleaned in 1930 to how it’s done today, it’s more or less the same process.”

In 2019, Dabiri partnered with Kamali to launch Autonopia and since then, the company has been working to remove the element of human risk from the window cleaning business. At the same time, they’re helping to solve the major obstacle facing the window cleaning industry today: reliance on manual labour that is difficult to attract and retain.

“It’s intimidating, hard work that most workers don’t want to do,” says Dabiri. He notes that, on average, windows on commercial skyscrapers are cleaned two to three times a year.

“There’s a high overhead to manage the hiring, allocation, and training of workers, and sometimes they quit as soon as it comes time to go on a high-rise.”

Disruption for innovation

Earlier attempts at window cleaning robots were limited by their ability to function only on flat, glass surfaces. Autonopia’s robot — which is scheduled to begin its first pilot project early in 2022 — can operate on any façade or surface structure, no matter how complicated. It works three to four times as fast as a human, and can withstand wind and cold temperatures, leading to significant operational efficiencies in a business that is pegged at roughly US$9 billion.

The robot’s modular, plug-and-play design also enables it to work on any building, without requiring additional infrastructure to be installed, adds Kamali. “We realized this problem has existed for a while and yet none of the available solutions has managed to scale,” he says. “We shortlisted our ideas, went through systematic review and engineering feasibility studies, and we now have a breakthrough design we believe is poised to change the industry.”

Opportunities to expand the business on the horizon

As the company prepares for next year’s pilot, it welcomed its first two full-time employees in July 2021, with additional hires in the pipeline for the remainder of the year. The small business is also seeking investors as it raises its first round of seed funding.

“Sometimes people make the argument that automation takes jobs away from people, but in this case, we’re actually saving people’s lives and creating new opportunities for them to work safer, easier, and smarter,” says Kamali. He also explains that robots require skilled supervisors to oversee the work. “Why would you want to keep things manual, inefficient and dangerous? It doesn’t really make sense.”

In recognition of his work, Kamali received the 2021 Mitacs Outstanding Entrepreneur Award for his efforts in turning research and development into an innovative business that impacts the lives of Canadians.

“With the Mitacs program I had the flexibility and inspiration to stay in touch with the innovation ecosystem of Vancouver. It led me to start my collaboration with Autonopia,” says Kamali.

After almost eight months of working with and getting to know their team, Kamali was offered to join Autonopia as Co-founder and CTO. He had the opportunity to participate in the feasibility study, lead the concept design, and contribute to their first patent. And Autonopia is now working quickly toward the minimum viable product.

“This has been a wonderful journey for which I am very grateful to my supervisors as well as Mitacs. I am very optimistic that Autonopia will be an internationally successful company,” says Kamali.

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from multiple partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country.

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