As companies and factories introduce more robots and robotics systems into their manufacturing processes and the interaction between robots and humans increases, so does the risk of injury to human workers.
Although foam covers or lower working speeds could protect robots’ human counterparts, these measures also make the robots more inefficient. Researchers at Germany’s Institute of Robotics & Mechatronics developed an inflatable airbag for the robots to protect people and allow robots to work at their full capacity.
“We want the [collaborative robot] to be always intrinsically safe, so the airbag is always inflated when the robot is moving in order to allow for high velocities, without extra sensors required for detecting dynamic environmental conditions robustly,” project investigator Roman Weitschat told Digital Trends.
The airbag inflates and deflates in less than a second and stays inflated when the robot is completing a dangerous or potentially injury-causing action, like moving an arm or carrying an object. This then protects a human who may be in the way of the operating machine. Unlike a car airbag that is created for one-time use in the case of an accident, these airbags are attached to the robot and used repeatedly to prevent accidents.
Fellow researcher Hannes Höppner said the institute is working to commercialize the product for robots of various sizes and designs.
“Together with certification authorities, we are working to make a certified product for collaborative robotic applications [available] within the next two years,” he said. “In the future, we think this solution will be applied to any kind of flexible manufacturing processes with collaborative robots, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises. We think that these cobots — easily taught by hand-guiding — can be flexibly placed wherever they are needed into human work cells without requiring fences. The airbag will enable people to use robots and tools full functionalities, and allow for a safe and efficient co-existence of humans and co-bots in [the same workplaces.]”