Video of man getting beaned by robot demonstrates need for novel safety mechanisms

Airbags might provide crucial protection where humans and robots work side by side.

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Researchers at Germany's Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics have developed inflatable airbags to protect humans from their robot coworkers.

It sounds like a funny problem, but it's a real concern in light manufacturing. Amid the fanfare, freak outs, and hype over the coming robot revolution, prognosticators often forget about the long transition ahead. In some industries, such as components manufacturing, working alongside robots has become standard in the last couple years. Industries like hospitality and food service might soon follow-suit.

The airbags would offer an extra layer of safety, inflating around a robot's end-effector -- the part that corresponds to a human's hand. End effectors can be sharp and hard, posing risks to human workers. The airbags wrap around like sheaths, retracting only when the robot is directly engaged in object manipulation.

It's a smart solution for a new class of collaborative robots. Unlike their heavy industry counterparts, which are confined behind safety cages, collaborative robots are relatively small -- some fit on a table top -- and designed to work out in the open alongside humans.

Units from companies like Rethink Robotics, Universal Robots, and ABB offer flexible, program-on-the-fly automation at a modest price point. That's proven perfect for light assembly lines, where some of the repetitive tasks and detailed work can be offloaded to a one- or two-armed robot helper, increasing efficiency and production consistency.

In many scenarios, the robots hand components to human workers, or vice versa.

Safety mechanisms of course exist; every manufacturer I've spoken with mentions safety as their first priority. Joints on collaborative robots are typically force-limited and equipped with sensors to detect unexpected contact. Many of these robots have cameras and lasers to map the environment around them in rich detail.

Collaborative robots have been in the mix since about 2015, and I haven't heard of a single accident with one.

Still, humans have a way of bumbling around safety mechanisms. The transition to human-robot workforce is going to be rocky enough. At least it can be safe.

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