Danger, Will Robinson!

September 2012
By Bryan Bergeron

Robots are supposed to be great for the dirty, dull, and dangerous. Then on the flip side, for companionship and help around the house. However, it’s easy to forget that robots can be perceived as — and sometimes are themselves — dangerous. It’s something to consider when you work with robots around non-enthusiasts and when you’re designing your next platform.

If you ever visit an automated factory with a robotic welding shop, you’ll see that many of the machines are either fenced off or have a safety zone painted on the floor. Enter the zone or jump the fence and you’ll risk serious injury. Most people expect a factory full of powerful, robotic arc welders and assemblers to be a dangerous place. The greatest practical danger to a traditional factory worker is often job security.

From a safety perspective, Google’s driverless car — undoubtedly the future of driving — isn’t there yet. The modified Toyota Prius is essentially in permanent driver’s ed class, with a human emergency operator/observer in the car whenever the motor is running. Although legal in Nevada, like I said, the car isn’t quite there yet. Until it can automatically, say, come to a stop when a five year old girl on a tricycle bounds out into the street, the car will be considered too dangerous for consumers. I suspect that the US DOD has several driverless transport vehicles on order, however.

If you’ve kept up with the work of the amazing folks at Willow Garage (www.willowgarage.com) — home of the Robot Operating System — you know that PR2 is probably the leading edge in personal robot appliances. It’s an impressive robotics platform for serious academic R&D. I’d love for a chance to have access to one of these $400K machines. However, it’s not something that I’d want roaming around my kitchen wielding a cleaver or helping me put on my tie in the morning. Those pincer hands just look too cold and powerful to me, and they must seem doubly so to someone not familiar with robotics.

Then, there’s my latest experimental robotics platform of choice: the quadcopter. While small units can be flown indoors, they’re at their best outdoors where larger craft sporting GPS and Google Maps and a variety of other sensors can be used to determine waypoints and photograph points of interest.

Working with the larger, outdoor quadcopters is also a great excuse to get outside, away from the workbench. However, many city governments (and police) see quadcopters and variants as large R/C aircraft that are already banned from flying down busy city streets. Even if your local community doesn’t have laws about R/C model aircraft, as the operator you need to consider the personal liability involved if a two pound Lithium-Ion battery ends up smashing a car’s windshield and then exploding.

Clearly, danger from robots — whether real or perceived — affects public acceptance of the technology. Eventually, we’ll get to the point of having a robot in every home, perhaps warning us of impending danger from sipping a too hot cup of coffee. To reach that point, we’ll have to think safety first in our robot designs. SV

Posted by Michael Kaudze on 08/22 at 07:50 AM


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