Not so much superhero as super cleaner, the little number zipping up building flanks is a self-propelled robot designed for epic window-washing jobs. Advanced Robotic Vehicles, the Seattle company that developed it, just landed the mother of all gigs in the glass-cleaning genre, the 69-foot pyramid at the entrance to the Louvre art museum in Paris.
No quick Windex job, this, since the fragile structure doesn't allow for the scaffolding a human washer would require. Rain and a neighboring fountain do their part to keep the 69-foot-tall, all-glass building in need of a cleaning, and the company's June test-wash at the Louvre went off without a streak
Starting in February, tourists lining up outside the popular landmark will see a double breadboxed-sized robot scrambling up the three-sided pyramid, designed by I.M. Pei. It takes two days to finish the job and the structure must be washed every three weeks.
"It'll definitely be a curiosity item," said Henry Happel, the company's chief executive. "You can certainly look at the Louvre, which is great, but once you get tired of that, you can look at the robot crawling up and down the side."
The company got the job through French robotics company RoboSoft, which discovered the Seattle robot-makers through their Web site.
Until now, cleaning the glass pyramid required driving a crane to the Louvre to hang a cleaning machine. The robot, dubbed LL1, can climb the pyramid on its own. It moves on tracks while staying anchored to the building with suction cups.
The design was a tricky compromise, since the suction must be strong enough to keep the robot attached while still allowing it to clamber over the 3-inch-wide rain gutters that crisscross the structure's surface.
Aesthetically, the LL1 might have taken a page out of the "BattleBots" design book. An industrial-strength squeegee and rotating brush are mounted on the robot's hood. A 100-foot hose connects to a vacuum. The whole thing is controlled by joystick.
"It's not a thing of beauty," Happel said. "But functionally, it is."
The company started dreaming up robots in 1997, when inventor Henry Seemann decided that he could harness technology to accomplish human tasks. He'd been tinkering with the idea for years, and the LL1 was born around eight months ago as an exclusive prototype for RoboSoft.
But while the Louvre deal is its first big contract, the company's goal is to apply the same technology to inspecting and cleaning airplanes.
The machine can motor upside down and backward over the crafts, using tools that detect cracks and other signs of deterioration beneath the surface with pinpoint accuracy.
The company has demonstrated its robot to Boeing and Lockheed Martin and has been asked by Boeing to do another next month.
"This is my dream," Seemann said. "Doing the washing is just a means to the end."
The robots could also sand planes before they're painted, giving workers' wrists a rest from the physical labor.
"It's lousy work and people get tired," Happel said. "But the robot can just buzz around the plane and sand like crazy."
And of course, the robots can provide a good, old-fashioned wash n' wax for any large structure, Happel said, be it an airplane, a boat or a huge, glossy music museum in downtown Seattle.
"I'm looking out at the EMP and saying 'Gee, maybe they need a wash job down there too.' "
Lisa Heyamoto: 206-464-2149 or firstname.lastname@example.org