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Robots Confront Safety Standards

SAN JOSE, Calif. — An army of more user-friendly robots is headed for the factory floor, but they may have to climb over cumbersome safety regulations, according to two pioneers in the field speaking at a workshop here.

“There’s a big market for automating small companies,” said Esben Ostergaard, chief technologist at Universal Robots, a Danish company now selling as many as 150 robots a month.

Safety regulations that demand multi-page risk assessments and complex danger mitigation schemes threaten progress, he said. He compared today’s safety standards to an 1861 law in England that required all cars to have a person walk in front of them carrying a red flag.

An 1861 English law required a flagman to walk ahead of a car.

An 1861 English law required a flagman to walk ahead of a car.

“We can’t have systems that are so safe they are useless,” he said, noting existing and pending ISO standards. “Our take on safety is it’s a moving target.”

“Using our safety strategy we will never get to [robots capable of moving] a meter a second with 40kg, so there are limitations on what can be done,” said Rodney Brooks, founder and chief technologist of Rethink Robotics.

Nevertheless, the new crop of robots will overtake traditional systems despite today’s stringent safety standards, Brooks said. “Companies using regulation to resist change will be swept away… Resisting change to protect an existing business is a losing strategy.”

Rethink’s Baxter is one of a coming army of robots that can be set up by novice users and do not need to be kept inside fenced-in areas, said Brooks, who also co-founded iRobot, maker of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. The emerging robots are generally smaller, cheaper, more diverse, and smarter than traditional cast-iron robotic arms. They integrate vision and force sensors and offer tethered tablets sporting touchscreen controls.

The Universal Robot sports at least one microcontroller in each of its several joints and is controlled using a purpose-built x86 tablet, said Ostergaard. By contrast, traditional factory floor robotic arms typically use external sensors, vision systems, and controllers.

“Moving to software platforms totally changes the game,” said Brooks. “Using a software platform, we improved our robot’s speed by a factor of three and its accuracy by a factor of two within 18 months — that does not happen with a hardware platform.”

Baxter currently runs on two software loads, but over the next year Rethink will merge them into one that will be “open to third-party developers at every level,” Brooks said. More inexpensive and flexible robots with intuitive user interfaces, he believes, “will really change the world.”

Rethink showed how its Baxter robot could be quickly reprogrammed to handle a variety of different tasks.

Rethink showed how its Baxter robot could be quickly reprogrammed to handle a variety of different tasks.

“It’s no longer just about building a robotic arm. Other players will come in with other solution sets,” he said. “Over the next few years, there will be many more features and more players than we consider today… Every venture capitalist is now trying to be in robotics, and when we get that wave of innovation there will be a lot of other” features.

Today’s industrial robots are most often used by carmakers to handle single, heavy tasks. They can cost as much as $250,000 to $500,000 including the costs of protective fencing and specialist installers and programmers, Ostergaard said.

By contrast, products such as Baxter and Universal Robots cost less than a tenth of that price, don’t need fencing, and can be flexibly programmed by novice users to handle a changing variety of tasks. By 2017, Ostergaard projects his company could be selling as many as 600 robots a month, mainly to small companies. Big carmakers are beginning to experiment with the new products, too, he said.

To read the rest of this article, visit EBN sister site EETimes.

11 comments on “Robots Confront Safety Standards

  1. Eldredge
    October 2, 2014

    Flexibility, and the ability to perform different task, is an important attribute for robotics, especially when small companies are a target market. Ease of programming new tasks will also be at the top of the list. Sounds liek Rethink has these bases covered.

  2. Susan Fourtané
    October 3, 2014

    “He compared today's safety standards to an 1861 law in England that required all cars to have a person walk in front of them carrying a red flag.”

    How ridiculous. I didn't know about that. It made the car way too pointless. They could have just walked just the same the person in front of the car was doing. 

    “Companies using regulation to resist change will be swept away… Resisting change to protect an existing business is a losing strategy.”

    I agree. Those businesses resisting change will join the dinosaurs in no time. 😀 

     It seems like 2017 is going to be a great year for technology. Many, many new technologies will bloom in that year. Many companies have set 2017 as the year for launching increadible projects, some of which we thought they were too far from becoming a reality. How exciting. 🙂 

    -Susan

  3. FLYINGSCOT
    October 3, 2014

    I believe these is a big market for smaller more agile robots that are easy to program and are relatively low cost ( < $50k).  

  4. Eldredge
    October 3, 2014

    @Flyingscot – I agree – at that price point, it would be very beneficial for small businesses to use robot solutions for repetitive tasks.

  5. Susan Fourtané
    October 4, 2014

    Flyingscot, 

    The spider robots are good for repetitive tasks. They are fast and easy to program. 

    -Susan

  6. Adeniji Kayode
    October 4, 2014

    @ Susan, Change is not static and it can never be stagnant either. Towards year 2020, I believe we would witness major innovations in technology.

  7. Susan Fourtané
    October 5, 2014

    Adeniji, 

    In fact, change is more dinamic than ever before. Earlier than 2020. Many technological advancements have already been announced for 2017. A fleet of autonomous cars in Sweden among them. There are several being tested on the streets, in normal driving conditions, as we speak. 

    -Susan

  8. Adeniji Kayode
    October 6, 2014

    @ Susan, You are right, all we have to do is to fasten our seat belts, we are going to see more possibilities and realities made possible by technology

  9. Susan Fourtané
    October 7, 2014

    Adeniji, 

    The good thing is that technology is evolving so fast that we get the chance to see these advances soon. 😀 

    -Susan

  10. SP
    October 8, 2014

    If robots are entering the non industrial world, the safety standards have to be extremely tight. Robots are preprogrammed machines. They behavior is already determined by designere, they cannot think or react like humans. So the safety is the utmost importance.

  11. Susan Fourtané
    October 10, 2014

    SP, 

    Robots are already in the non-industrial world. 🙂 According to the latest research on AI and robotics robots can be programmed to react like humans and even better. They are embedding ethics and emotions in robots already. These robots are being used, for example, in emergency rescue zones and conflict zones. 

    -Susan

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