The cobots are coming… but will they be safe?

Robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) – including drones and driverless vehicles – are expected to have a major impact on most economic sectors within the next 10 years. Here Simon Armitage, Science Coordinator for HSE’s Shared Research, considers the implications for occupational health and safety of integrating these collaborative robots (cobots) with the human workforce.

The World Economic Forum recently considered the fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological worlds, and the changes to the workforce that intelligent machines bring.

The International Federation of Robotics estimates that by 2018, global sales of industrial robots will grow, year on year, by 15% – doubling to 400,000 the number of units sold. 70% of these sales will be to five major markets: China, Japan, USA, South Korea and Germany.

Taking down the barriers between man and machine

Segregation, by means of perimeter fences, guards and interlocks, has traditionally been used to mitigate risks to workers from active industrial robots. These barriers may disappear in the future, since the next generation of collaborative robots (or ‘cobots’) is being designed to operate alongside human workers within a shared workspace.

Increasing numbers of cobots are becoming available, with the ability to undertake a wide variety of tasks and applications, and to operate safely in many industrial environments.

What will all of this mean for health and safety in the workplace of the future? Early in 2016, the International Organisation for Standardisation  (the folk behind the ISO standards) published a technical specification for collaborative robots to supplement its existing ‘Safety Requirements for Industrial Robots’ standards (ISO/TS 15066).
The specification provides guidance for cobot operation in a workspace shared with human co-workers.

In such operations, the integrity of the safety-related control system is of major importance, particularly when process parameters such as speed and force are being controlled. The specification also describes different collaborative concepts and details the requirements to achieve these.

A comprehensive risk assessment is required to assess not only the cobot system itself, but also the environment in which it will operate.

What might cobots mean for health and safety at work?

The safe development and operation of RAS will require effective management and control of the risks associated with deployment of this technology, including assurance of the integrity of related safety systems.

This will help to underpin an effective future regulatory framework that will help to ensure the protection of the health and safety of those working with, and alongside, RAS.

Cobots – help us to get to know them better!

Without the traditional robot separation measures of guarding, fences or cages, the close proximity and collaborative nature of human-cobot working offers new opportunities but also potential risks that must be managed.

HSE’s Centre for Shared Research is inviting regulatory, industry and other stakeholders to discuss RAS safety in more detail, and contribute to a research project that will help improve our collective understanding and knowledge. Contributing partners can help to shape the research activity and get exclusive early sight of the results, allowing them to improve their management of emerging H&S challenges in their business, assured of alignment with HSE priorities.

This project will address the following key questions to enable uptake in a safe way, with due regard to health issues too:

  1. What does current good practice look like?
  2. What improvements would be beneficial to safety standards and guidance?
  3. How to implement cobots into work places without adversely affecting health?
  4. How to conduct a risk assessment for activities with collaborative robots?

Contact us for more information about this project at shared.research@hse.gov.uk

 

Concerned about cobots? Dubious about drones? Let us have your thoughts and opinions on robotics and autonomous systems by leaving a comment below.

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