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International standards bodies are struggling with the implications of injury-causing contact between humans and robots in work environments. One of the major questions remains: how much should a robot be allowed to ‘hurt’ its coworkers?

It is only recently that ‘collaborative’ robots have begun working alongside humans without barriers in between them with several companies, including Universal Robots, having developed robots that will stop work if they strike an object with a force set by the programmer. Setting the ‘level of pain’ a robot may inflict on a human is a crucial goal of the International Standards Organisation (ISO).

It is expected that ISO will release an update to its existing industrial robot safety standards to include the use of collaborative robots.

Esben Østergaard, Chief Technology Officer at Universal Robots, has voiced concerns that new rules may place unrealistic demands on robot manufacturers and designers.

The ISO’s updates will determine how collaborative robots could safely wield greater force, according to Pat Davison, Director of Standards Development at the Robotic Industries Association. In a technique known as “speed and separation monitoring,” laser sensors allow a robot to perform potentially hazardous actions when there is a minimum separation distance between the robot and any human. The robot would then gradually slow down if a human approach – even stopping if there is a continued potential for harm. “The further away I am, the more hazardous the robot’s activity can be,” Davison said at last week’s meeting. That could allow humans and robots to collaborate on tasks such as moving and assembling heavy parts.


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