Occupational hazards exist in every industry, and we used to adhere to the notion of “acceptable losses” for certain projects. Over 20,000 people are estimated to have died under the French leadership of the Panama Canal’s construction, and another 6,000 when the Americans finally finished it in 1914 — two years ahead of its target date. Fifteen years later, five men perished during the construction of the Empire State Building, which was pretty good for the time.
However, acceptable workplace-related deaths aren’t really in style anymore. One causality is too many in today’s post-OSHA world, whether you’re in the U.S. or living beyond its borders. Such was the case two years ago when a robot crushed a 22-year-old man to death at a Volkswagen assembly plant. As a result, VW and other automakers are closely watching the efforts of Germany’s Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics in order to build a safer robot.
Two employees, Roman Weitschat and Hannes Hoeppner, have taken it upon themselves to start a new company with the aim of developing a system to protect line workers from a rogue mechanical arm. The firm, Cobotect GmbH, claims it will use airbags to shield humans from the hard bits of a robot and has already developed a working prototype.
“A lot of people were complaining about unsafe robots and robot tools,” Weitschat said in an interview with Bloomberg.
Essentially, the system inflates a cocoon of padding around the end of the arm prior to any action the machine might take, deflating it whenever it needs to make contact with its workspace. Ideally, the company says it hopes to help machines and humans work more closely together. Weitschat said some robotic arms are prohibited from operating in the same areas as people due to the risk of injury. If they can perfect their system, they want to change that — making factories safer and more flexible.
However, watching the video of the prototype in action is a little less impressive than it sounds. It deserves a pass, since this is just a proof of concept, but seeing a small robotic arm bop a man on the forehead with an air-filled glove doesn’t scream “life-saving technology.”
It was good enough to raise a few automotive eyebrows, however. The pair of researchers say they’re still trying to find a strategic investor for their company in order to facilitate large-scale production of the system. But they’ve had a few bites on the line, especially from German auto manufacturers, according to Weitschat.
Among those most interested is Volkswagen. The company said it is “in contact with Cobotect and is watching their developments for safety,” according to a VW spokesperson. Presumably, automakers outside of Europe would also be interested in this sort of technology, assuming it works as well as Cobotect hopes.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there have been 38 robot-related incidents in the country between 1987 and 2016. That’s small potatoes when you compare it to the nearly 5,000 job-related injuries in 2015 alone. But being able to design factory floor plans that don’t isolate inorganic and organic employees could be a boon to the industry — and save a few lives in the process.