n June this year a robot crushed a man to death in a Volkswagen factory in Germany. The 22-year-old maintenance worker became trapped between a large robotic arm and a metal plate, in an area usually off-bounds to humans.
The tragic incident highlighted a major technological challenge: As we move towards an increasingly automated world, how do we reach a point where robots and humans can exist side-by-side, sharing space and collaborating on tasks?
Safe and efficient robot-human interaction – dubbed ‘collaborative robotics’ or ‘cobotics’ – has the power to transform assembly lines, domestic work, healthcare and logistics.
These robotic arms are very powerful and accurate, but need to be completely separated from humans. Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg
Carmakers and aerospace giants – already heavily automated – have been the earliest adopters, with BAE Systems earlier this month announcing plans to use cobotics to build warplanes.
As it stands, industrial robots are far too dangerous to share space with humans – having been linked to more than 20 fatal accidents in the U.S. alone – and so tend to be shielded by large screens.
“They are great at moving heavy things at high speeds for monotonous jobs, but they move blindly with no intelligence. If they make contact with a human it can cause a serious injury and people can get killed,” says José Saenz, from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation.
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