Are Collaborative Robots Safe? – A Layman’s Perspective

Cobots are slowly becoming part and parcel of the modern working environment. Everywhere you look be it; manufacturing, Medicare, Warehousing and logistics, collaborative robots are being deployed extensively to aid human laborers to accomplish routine and even creative tasks much more efficiently. Of course with this kind of proliferation comes widespread safety and health concerns as with any artificial/industrial equipment used out there.

Are collaborative robots safe? How is the regulatory environment like with regard to Cobots? What are some of the safeguards end users and companies can put in place to ensure they maintain a safe co-existence with collaborative robots? We take a deep dive into issues safety with regard to Cobots from a layman’s perspective.

Regulatory Environment: ISO/TS 15066:2016 For Robots and Related Devices

New regulations set by the international organization for Standardization’s (ISO/TC 299 WG3 technical committee outline a number of technical specifications and best practices for manufacturers of collaborative robots. Industrial robots for sale around the world have to comply with these new regulations in addition to the existing ISO 10218‑1 and ISO 10218‑2 to minimize cases of injuries emanating from the interaction between human operators and Cobots in industrial setups.

Here is a laydown of the key areas covered in ISO/TS 15066:2016

1)   Specifications with Regard to Pain

In a layman’s terms, this specification outlines data points on the levels of pain that may result from the routine interaction with collaborative robots. Data was collected on real-life subjects by the University of Mainz in Germany in collaboration with the ISO. They established key guidelines manufacturers need to consider when manufacturing Cobots with regard to allowable pressure and force limits when human beings interact with Cobots. There are clear numerical specifications on this subject for manufacturers to follow.

2)   Operational Speed and Power

Unlike some traditional autonomous industrial robots, collaborative robots do not work in isolation. Collaborative robots are by nature made to work much more intimately with human operators. This presents a whole new level of complexity with regard to the power and speed at which such equipment operates when they are so closely paired with people. This specification clearly outlines allowable power and speed limits at which the Cobots and by extension, the attached EOAT (end of arm tooling) can operate so as not to injure their operators.

3)   Design Considerations/Criteria

There is a thin line between traditional robotic systems and these modern collaborative robotic systems. Indeed, workers have been directly interacting with robotic systems in assembly lines for decades. What really makes a robot a collaborative robot? This was a subject of confusion among manufacturers for a long time until the introduction of this technical spec in ISO/TS 15066:2016. This specification provides design guidelines and criteria for Cobot manufacturers like Universal Robots to include in their Cobot designs going forward.

4)   Specification On Collaboration Operation

This spec defines in detail how collaborative robots operate in the real world with 4 key areas of focus namely;

  1. Safety-rated monitored stop

This simply means a collaborative robot can be put into STOP mode and stay in that state when the human operator requires it to. This could be when the operator is engaged in other activities within the workspace or wants to move the Cobot to a different location in the case of mobile Cobots.

  1. Hand-guiding

Hand guiding is a key feature in modern collaborative robots. It is how human operators specify their Cobot’s arm movements using manufacturer specific programming guidelines. This spec mainly defines safety standards with regard to the hand-guiding process and when or how a Cobot arm is allowed to move in the collaborative space

  • Speed and separation monitoring

How close can a human operator get to a collaborative robot before it’s forced to stop to prevent injury through contact? This specification covers proximity and arm movement to prevent injuries to operators.

  1. Power and force limiting

As the name suggests, this particular specification provides guidelines in relation to the allowable operational power and force of the collaborative robot’s moving components such as the arm.

Final Remarks- So Are Collaborative Robots Safe?

The common misconception is that Cobots are supposed to be safe right out of the box.  However, it’s critical that companies deploying Cobots take the following steps to guarantee a safe co-existence between workers and Collaborative robots.

  • Carry out a comprehensive risk assessment prior to deployment
  • Provide comprehensive safety training
  • Conduct due diligence at the procurement stage and only buy ISO compliant collaborative robots from reputable manufacturers like Universal Robots. Industrial robots for sale by Universal Robots comply to all ISO specifications in ISO/TS 15066:2016 and other standards covering industrial robotic systems.