By on September 18, 2017


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.


[Image: Toyota]

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16 Comments on “Building a Better Robot – One That Won’t Murder You...”

  • avatar

    Skynet is coming to a robot near you.

  • avatar

    Seems this is far down the suboptimal side of the “return on investment” curve.

    Resources are finite, so money spent to prevent robot attack presumably takes away from some other desirable thing.

    If a manufacturing plant has $X to invest in safety improvements it’s hard to imagine a time when this technology will be the best use of that money.

    • 0 avatar

      I think you make a great point on use of resources, but the argument of many is human life (or costs thereof) are valued in the tens if not hundreds of millions of those resources spent. FTR I agree with you.

  • avatar

    “We didn’t know the inflation commands were just during media events and wouldn’t actually inflate under normal operational circumstances…uh….talk to Bosch, they built the robots!”

  • avatar

    All manufacturing/construction accidents can be traced back to human failure..This idea has some merit, but I can see where it may prove to be a PITA..I just can’t see it being widely accepted.

    Nothing equals a strictly enforced Lock Out Procedure..Everybody working even close to automated equipment, salaried, and hourly, needs Lock Out Training and have their personal lock (one key) within arms reach.

    • 0 avatar

      I can’t believe I’m gonna quote the incredibly pedantic process coach for my department:


      No matter how good you are at training your folks, you will always have bad behavior.* A task should be arranged in such a manner that it can’t be screwed up. If you can throw a pile of parts roughly on the ground and a car spontaneously arises fully formed, you may be building the TNGA, but the operator won’t be able to screw it up. Same with those sawblades that magically stop when they detect human instead of wood. Given the choice, I’ll pick tossing more into the tooling every time.

      *NOTE: the NFL App and/or the gal on Frame 2 is WAY more interesting than the 600th bolt you’ve shot into a third row seat today.

    • 0 avatar

      1000% Agree with Mikey. At GM (used to work in manufacturing) the Monitored Power System made it really hard to violate LOTO. Prior to that system I can’t think of an accident that couldn’t have been prevented by following Lock Out. In an MPS system, the person opens a gate and the robots drop out electrically and only a single lock needs to be put on the gate. Essentially they had to make it so stupid simple that even 30+ year skilled trades who knew every thing possible about the line, didn’t just skip over LOTO because they thought they knew better or it was just going to be something quick or simple. Also in my past experience, it unfortunately was always a plant guy violating the rules since they had absolutely no problem bouncing anyone out of the plant on a first offense that wasn’t a line worker or skilled trade.

  • avatar

    So …. I’d bet money that VW death was from the worker in the wrong place at the wrong time. But let’s suppose otherwise, that the robot malfunctioned.

    Solution: give it more things which can malfunction!

  • avatar

    Without speaking to the specifics of the VW accident, I tend to think of things like this from two ends:

    1. Were the procedures followed? (I.e. Mikey’s point above)

    2. Did the process create a trap for the users?

    That latter one is trickier to understand. In a simple example, imagine there’s a large pit in the middle of the facility. Day one orientation: “here is the pit. Do not fall in the pit.” Good procedure: if you follow it, nobody dies. So, let’s say once a year someone falls in the pit, and each time the accident report is “victim did not follow procedures.”


    But surely we recognize that the proper solution is to ask questions like:
    -why do workers fall in the pit?
    -can we route them away from the pit?
    -how do we make the pit less fatal, maybe a railing?
    -do we even need the pit?

    Again, a very simplified example. But a robust safety process is all about examining how to make it harder for users to fail, even though they’re fallible.

  • avatar
    White Shadow

    No worries…it shouldn’t be long before we eliminates people entirely from the manufacturing process.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Having robots share the same space with humans is the same discussion we’ve been having about autonomous vehicles.

    In this case, the end goal is to maximize revenue by entrusting these automated systems to not tangle with humans while occupying the same working area.

    But the same questions remain: What employer will want the liability of having robots (formerly known as “live machinery”) moving about with its employees in the same space? And once an accident occurs, whose fault will it be – the employer, the worker, or the robot mfr?

    This would be a great reason to have union representation. As mikey points out, this would violate the Lock-Out/Tag-Out policies of many companies and safety commissions.

    • 0 avatar

      “Having robots share the same space with humans is the same discussion we’ve been having about autonomous vehicles.”

      So if we lock the humans out of the autonomous vehicles…

  • avatar

    ‘Murder’ usually implies an intention of some sort (e.g. ‘malicious intent’). Just sayin’.

  • avatar

    We should all live in cocoons and have replaceable robot bodies that live our lives for us! That would solve everything! Now go see if Surrogates is on Netflix.

  • avatar

    Yeah, thanks for the clickbait headline.

    No human has ever been murdered by a robot, and isn’t ever going to be until a robot is capable both of forming premeditated intent and of following through on it. Here’s hoping that when that time comes, Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are in force.

    For reference:
    1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
    2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
    3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

  • avatar

    The reality is different from the first few paragraphs of the article.
    Death on the job may be “out of style” but it continues to happen. Usually in situations where OSHA is not around.
    I still read the newspapers and, just in the county I live, several people are killed every year on the job.
    A common incident is a collapse of an excavation on a construction site. Or someone crushed by farm equipment.
    These do not make the national news. Often there is a complicated web of sub-contractors. Who will fade away or declare bankruptcy avoiding fines.
    The only instance I recall where criminal charges were brought was when supervisors at a waste disposal company, “recycling”, instructed workers to mix then unknown liquids into a tank truck. Which a short time later exploded.
    Some of the upper managers were in jail for a few days and paid some serious fines, probably by insurance.
    Also TTAC had an article a few months ago which linked to a long magazine article about auto manufacturer supplier-vendors. It described the death of a young woman who was trying to get a stuck machine operating.
    That seems to be the time when a lot of the injuries occur, during repairs or maintenance. IIRC the machine that killed the woman was supposedly “locked off”.

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