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Two years ago, a robot crushed a 22-year-old man to death at a Volkswagen factory in Germany after the maintenance worker got trapped in an area usually off-bound to humans. While this type of tragedy is still relatively rare, efforts to improve safety are intensifying as factories around the world become increasingly automated.
Now, in a development that’s drawn interest from car makers including Volkswagen, entrepreneurs Roman Weitschat and Hannes Hoeppner, working at the German Aerospace Center outside of Munich, say they have designed a way to better safeguard interactions between humans and robots with the aim of allowing them to work more closely.
Their newly-created company, Cobotect GmbH, is using the decades-old concept of airbags to cushion potentially dangerous automated parts and prevent workers from getting hurt. Increased safety would mean robots could work more efficiently and at a faster pace when near humans, according to the researchers.
“A lot of people were complaining about unsafe robots and robot tools,” Weitschat said in an interview in his laboratory. Sharp edges on parts handled by robotic arms can pose risks to workers if they are accidentally hit, making it hard to gain approval for the machines to be positioned close to humans, he said.
The death in Germany, and a clutch in the US, are evidence of the potential dangers posed by industrial automation. While global statistics aren’t readily available, a search through the US Department of Labor’s website under accidents involving robots is grim reading. The 38 incidents between 1987 and 2016 include employees amputated, asphyxiated, struck or crushed by robots.
The pair of researchers is trying to find a strategic investor for their company to help fund large-scale production of the airbags. They’ve had interest for the products, especially from Germany’s auto manufacturers, according to Weitschat.
Volkswagen is “in contact with Cobotect and is watching their developments for safety,” a spokesperson said. “As soon as usable prototypes are available, we will examine possible applications, although no decision has been made.”