From driverless cars to delivery drones, a new generation of robots is about to revolutionize the way people work, drive and shop. But there is one area where robots are already entrenched and spreading fast: the industrial sector, especially manufacturing and storage.
Robots have long toiled alongside workers in factories and warehouses, where they load boxes with items ordered online, drill and weld car parts, or move food from one conveyor belt to the next.
Now many experts worry about the dangers that robots pose to the humans who work alongside them.
Robots have caused at least 33 workplace deaths and injuries in the United States in the past 30 years, according to data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That may not sound like many, but the number may well understate the perils ahead.
Unlike today’s robots, which generally work in cages, the next generation will have much more autonomy and freedom to move on their own.
“In order for robots to work more productively, they must escape from their cages and be able to work alongside people,” said Kent Massey, the director of advanced programs at HDT Robotics.
“To achieve this goal safely, robots must become more like people. They must have eyes and a sense of touch, as well as the intelligence to use those senses.”
Until now, robots have largely been used in manufacturing, particularly in the auto industry. They have mostly been “dumb robots,” designed for repetitive tasks that are dirty, dangerous or dull.
Regulations have required that the robots operate separately from humans, in cages or surrounded by light curtains that stop the machines when people approach. As a result, most of the injuries and deaths have happened when humans who are maintaining the robots make an error or violate the safety barriers, such as by entering a cage.
But the robots whose generation is being born today collaborate with humans and travel freely in open environments where people live and work. They are products of the declining cost of sensors and improved artificial intelligence algorithms in areas such as machine vision. Google’s newest driverless car, for instance, is completely automated, without a steering wheel or a brake pedal.
Along with the new, free-roaming robots come new safety concerns. People worry about what happens if a robot spins out of control, or the first time a driverless car kills someone.
“It’s the fear of robots,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School who studies driverless cars. “There’s something scarier about a machine malfunctioning and taking away control from somebody.”
As a result, these robots require extra protective measures. The Google car has a padded front to soften any blow if the robot or a human causes an accident. The windshield is plastic, and the front of the car is rounded so it is less likely to hurt or trap pedestrians or cyclists.
Another robot, Baxter, which does repetitive jobs in workplaces like packaging small items, is designed to sense humans and stop before coming in contact with them. It also has a display screen that cues those who are nearby about what the robot is focusing on and planning to do next.
If robots and humans are going to live and work together, Baxter and its progeny will need more of these advances. To develop them, the robots’ creators will need to draw on one of the most human of emotions: empathy.
Here, from OSHA data, are nine serious industrial accidents involving robots about which the most detail is available. Many were a result of human error; others were caused by robots’ unexpected behavior.
Bakery, August 2011
An employee was repairing a jammed conveyor belt in an oven when he became caught between a robotic arm and the belt. He was killed.
Plastics factory, May 2007
An employee was troubleshooting a robotic arm used to remove CD jewel cases when the arm struck the employee in his head and ribs. He died two weeks later.
Metal factory, July 2006
An employee was crushed between a robotic arm and the robot’s work station. He appeared to have been reaching to remove a scrap the robot had dropped or to push the reset button. The employee was killed.
Car factory, March 2006
A robot caught an employee on the back of her neck and pinned her head between itself and the part she was welding. She was killed.
Car factory, December 2001
An employee was cleaning at the end of his shift and entered a robot’s unlocked cage. The robot grabbed his neck and pinned the employee under a wheel rim. He was asphyxiated.
Metal factory, August 1999
A maintenance worker climbed a fence to repair a pin in a robot. It was still operating, and he became caught in the machine. He was killed.
Meatpacking plant, June 1999
An employee accidentally activated a robot when he stepped on a conveyor belt where robots were moving boxes of meat. He became trapped. When his co-workers removed the robot, he fell to the floor. He was killed.
Sporting goods maker, November 1996
An employee was using a robot to weld and drill basketball backboards. When he noticed a half-done hole, he manually drilled it. The robot thought that meant the cycle was complete and unexpectedly turned, pinning the employee against the wall. He was hospitalized.
Aluminum factory, February 1996
Three workers were watching a robot pour molten aluminum when the pouring unexpectedly stopped. One of them left to flip a switch to start the pouring again. The other two were still standing near the pouring operation, and when the robot restarted, its 150-pound ladle pinned one of them against the wall. He was killed.