Mobile Robots Poised to Become Safer, More Common
Emily Pollock posted on January 22, 2019 |
The HRP-5P Humanoid Robot is one of the mobile robots gaining a foothold in the construction industry. While these robots are becoming more popular, the safety standards haven’t caught up to the reality on-the-ground. (Image courtesy of National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.)
The HRP-5P Humanoid Robot is one of the mobile robots gaining a foothold in the construction industry. While these robots are becoming more popular, the safety standards haven’t caught up to the reality on-the-ground. (Image courtesy of National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.)

In 2018, the news was filled with stories of robots motoring around construction sites, doing everything from adding 3D-printed filaments to buildings to installing drywall. But it's difficult to know whether that's a flash in the pan, or a genuine new direction for the construction industry. To get more clarification on where the market is going, we spoke to an expert in heavy-duty mobile robotics.

Ryan Braman is a Test Engineering Manager at TÜV Rheinland, an international testing and inspection agency. Braman is part of their commercial group, testing industrial machinery. As such, he’s on the front lines of a sea change in mobile robots.

The current gold standard for industrial robot safety is R15-06, developed by the Robotics Industries Association (RIA). While R15-06 thoroughly details stationary robot safety, it only includes a few paragraphs about mobile robot safety. And, because they’re working in close proximity with people, these “cobots” present risks that stationary robots don’t. “With your traditional industrial robots, they’re like a caged animal; you stick it in a cage, nobody goes in, nobody touches it,” Braman says. “If there’s a problem with it, it’s locked in a cage and nobody’s in there with it anyways. With these cobots, that’s gone.”

To correct that, the RIA is developing a new standard for industrial mobile robot safety—the R15-08—that’s slated to come out later this year. The organization is consulting with both robotics companies and testing groups like TUV Rhineland to figure out what needs to be covered by the new testing standards. RIA needs to strike a delicate balance between making rules too lax and too strict. “Best-case scenario is, we come up with standards that can easily be applied to the technology we see in the industry today, but also don’t limit future technology that we don’t know about,” Braman says.

These regulations will be extremely important in light of Braman’s prediction for the market: an explosion of interest in mobile robots, driven as much by smaller startups as huge multinationals. “Something we see a lot of, especially in the robotics circles we run in, is we’re seeing a lot of smaller companies coming to the shows, coming to the conferences and looking to try to get into collaborative robots,” Braman says. “A lot of them don’t know what they don’t know yet, they just think, ‘Hey, this robot is cool, and I want to use it to do a specific task.’ That is signalling to me that it’s going to boom much more than they already have.”

But he also includes a cautionary note to startups wanting to get into robotics: don’t neglect safety in pursuit of cool new toys. Braman isn’t convinced that the newer, smaller players will necessarily take the same safety precautions as the larger ones have.

Above all, he hopes that the new standards are broad enough to cover the wealth of mobile industrial robots out there, and useful enough to be accepted by the community. “As a testing company, the worst thing that can happen to you is the client comes to you with a product with no real standard,” Braman says. “Now, we’re exposing ourselves because we’re mixing and matching different regulations, because it’s a little unsure if you’re doing things properly. That’s what we’re scared of, standards not keeping up with technology.”


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