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Robots to the Rescue for Costly Co-op and Condo Facade Inspections

Bill Morris in Bricks & Bucks on October 27, 2021

New York City

Facade Inspection and Safety Program, robots, DOB, co-ops and condos, thermal imaging.

An unmanned Image-R robot inspects a building facade (image courtesy of aRobotics Company).

Oct. 27, 2021

Co-op and condo boards are accustomed to getting bad news – and big bills – in their never-ending quest to comply with the city’s stringent Facade Inspection and Safety Program, formerly known as Local Law 11. Today, we have some good news.

The city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) has just announced that imaging robots produced by aRobotics Company, winner of the department’s inaugural “Hack the Building Code” Innovation Challenge, can be used to supplement facade inspections. The savings in cost, time and liability for co-op and condo boards could be significant.

“There was an obvious need for this,” says Akaash Kancharla, founder and chief executive of three-year-old, Ossining-based aRobotics Company. “The techniques and technology of facade inspections haven’t changed much in the past 15 to 20 years – even though the rules keep changing and the work keeps getting more expensive.”

Now, at last, the technology is changing. The company’s Image-R robot is a rig equipped with up to 16 cameras, plus sensors. Guided by an operator on the ground, the robot can take still photographs, videos and/or infrared (thermal) images that can detect leaks and moisture accumulations; the robot can also measure the efficiency of a building’s insulation by detecting heat leaks, a major consideration as boards strive to bring their buildings into compliance with the Climate Mobilization Act. Two operators can assemble the robot in 20 minutes and conduct up to eight drops per day by either lowering the rig from the roof or raising it from the ground. No worker is on the rig, and no scaffolding or sidewalk shed are required. The robots have been proven to function well in high winds and on buildings with irregular facades. “We’re able to do multiple types of inspection at the same time at a fraction of the cost,” Kancharla says.

Robots have their limits. “Hands-on inspections of facades facing public rights-of-way are still required,” says Andrew Rudansky, a DOB spokesman. Physical probes of cavity walls are also still required. “But on other facades where inspectors use binoculars, they can now use robots if they comply with the guidelines in our latest Bulletin.” The robots can also be used to supplement mandatory hands-on inspections.

Which brings us to the potential savings. “The vast majority of the time,” Kancharla says, “our prices are 25% to 35% cheaper than a conventional, manned roof drop. Whatever rigging companies can do, we can do faster, with less equipment, less insurance cost and less overall risk.”

The cost savings come in other ways. “The permitting process is much easier for us because we don’t lift any people,” Kancharla says, noting that the required permits for robots cost just $75 and can usually be obtained in a day.

Robots appear to be an idea whose time has come. Kancharla, who received a master’s degree in industrial engineering from Columbia University, reports that his fledgling aRobotics Company is working to keep up with demand. “We have three robots now, and we need 40,” he says. “I was surprised we won the DOB competition, to be honest with you, but it feels like we’ve come up with a product that will make boards’ lives easier, safer and cheaper.”

The deadline for applications to this year’s “Hack the Building Code” Innovation Challenge is Nov. 3. “It’s open to the public,” says Rudansky of the DOB. “We’ll announce this year’s winners at an online conference before the end of the year.” To apply, click here.

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