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Robot airbags could help industrial bots play nice with humans

Robot airbags could help industrial bots play nice with humans


Better to be booped by an airbag than crushed by a claw

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Making robots that can work safely alongside humans is an important and unavoidable challenge for the manufacturing industry. If something goes wrong with a robot and it confuses a squishy human body with open air, the result might not just be delayed production, but broken bones and torn flesh. In the most straightforward way possible, robots just don’t know their own strength.

But in order to guard against this sort of mishap, researchers at Germany’s DLR Robotics and Mechatronics Center have been working a reassuringly familiar safety measure: airbags for robots. The scientists came up with this idea back in 2016, but last week published a new video showing how the technology works in a collaborative task — in their example, assembling a heater pump.

As the video above shows, the airbag surrounds the robot’s manipulator tool and its sharp edges, automatically inflating when the arm is moving to protect any nearby humans. When the robot needs to use the manipulator, the airbag deflates in less than a second. Lights built into the ‘bag let nearby humans know when the machine is safe, and built-in pressure sensors detect if it bumps into anyone. A video of an earlier prototype from March shows a researcher testing the efficacy of the system in the most straightforward way possible: by letting it ram into his head.

Airbags like these are only one option for making industrial robots safe for humans. Currently, onboard sensors and cameras are used to help robots detect nearby flesh-and-blood workers, and machines are often equipped with “force-limited joints” that detect when there’s too much resistance to their movement and automatically shut down. Technology like this is going to be essential in ensuring robots and humans can work safely alongside one another, which in turn is necessary for making sure robots don’t take too many human jobs. An airbag on a robot may seem silly, but it could be life-saving in more ways than one.