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Considering Safety Implications

by Jeff Fryman , Director, Standards Development
Robotic Industries Association


Contemplating this article, I was searching for a “catchy” theme to write about that tied in well with our upcoming North American Robot Safety Conference in Toronto, March 26 – 28, 2007.  Then a flurry of e-mails across my desk this week highlighted a topic we don’t often explore but it was obvious we need to – the misuse of robots and blatant disregard of safety.  Perhaps not the upbeat tie-in to the conference I was searching for, but a timely topic to be sure.  


Ok, what is the fuss?  Well this week there were two video clips posted on the web featuring industrial robots in VERY non-industrial and dangerous applications.  Although I am sure the perpetrators thought these applications were all in fun, but it was clear they had not thought out the total implications of their actions, particularly about personal safety.  And no, although I will describe what I observed, I will not pass on the URL’s.

Every day we see new and exciting applications for robots; all designed to improve productivity and in the end, quality of life.  The term robot is increasing being used to identify numerous devices that demonstrate some robotic features, even toys.  But industrial robots are NOT toys.  They are designed to exacting standards for safety and reliability.  These standards, though, are for industrial applications and do not cover toys or applications where the human is the point of operation. 

The great success in employing industrial robots today may be leading to an unwanted situation where familiarity breads contempt.  Robots perform well and have a very good safety record.  But robots are not perfect and do fail, usually in a safe manner.  This is not because the robot themselves are safe, rather that our safeguarding strategy has prevented access or exposure to the potential hazard.

Industrial robots are not an amusement ride.  Yes, I know there is a commercial amusement ride based originally on a robot.  However, that device is specially built under supervised conditions to a very rigorous standard for amusement rides – requirements well beyond what the industrial robot safety standard ANSI/RIA R15.06-1999 requires.  The safeguarding requirements in R15.06 are just that – guards against exposure to the hazard.

So, what do we see in the video clip?  An ordinary off-the-shelf articulating industrial robot with a chair attached as the end effector.  In the chair we see a hapless rider being swung and twisted around every which way.  Bad enough?  No.  Sitting in a semi circle around this swinging robot are young people watching and presumably waiting their turn in the chair.  Scary.  It is frightening to consider the potential consequences of an accident, which obviously the designers have not done.  Multiple failure modes could lead to the rider falling or being slammed into the ground – possibly even head first.  And much more likely than a mechanical failure are programming errors which could result in an unexpected path.

Although very desirable, robots are not required to have an assured path accuracy and resultant cumulative errors could be disastrous.  Another point is physiological considerations of the path and its impact on the rider.  Failure to understand and consider “g” loading can lead to serious injury to the rider – and this can vary depending on a person’s size and age.  And of course a very obvious safety hazard – any one of the spectators could get up out of their seat and walk directly into the unprotected path of the moving robot.

The second video is another example of people in the restricted space of the robot in motion, but this time it is because they are playing tennis with the robot.  Granted there is some satisfaction in demonstrating you can write an interactive program for the robot, but then standing next to the robot to observe motion is risky.  Again I don’t know where this was done, but it could well have been near New Orleans based on the number of sandbags used to counter balance the legs of the robot.  Talk about new concepts in mounting!  Unsafe, not thinking, and hazardous are just a few terms that come to mind in describing this misuse of industrial robots.

Speaking of terms and industrial robots – come to the North American Robot Safety Conference to learn more about the CORRECT way to safely use and safeguard industrial robots and robot systems following the guidelines in CAN/CSA Z434, ANSI/RIA R15.06 and ISO 10218.  Co-hosted by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), this year’s event is taking place in Toronto, March 26th – 28th.   For more information on the conference activities and to register, click: North American Robot Safety Conference.

I hope to see you in Toronto.  Until next time – work safe!

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