Cars have airbags, so why shouldn’t your robot co-worker?

Cars have airbags to protect us vulnerable humans from damage, so why shouldn’t robots offer similar protection? After all, as we work more closely than ever with robots in a growing number of areas, the chances of something going wrong increases. This is exactly the thinking behind a project at Germany’s Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, where researchers have developed inflatable airbags designed to offer an extra level of protection for humans who might otherwise wind up the victim of a robot-induced injury.

“The main difference between airbags in cars and the Robotic Airbag is that a car airbag is triggered in case of an accident,” Roman Weitschat, one of the investigators behind the project, told Digital Trends. “That means the airbag is mainly hidden and designed for single use only. With the Robotic Airbag, we pursue a different strategy. We want the co-bot (read: 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.”

When the robot is still, the airbag deflates in a process that takes less than a second. It’s a neat solution, which is superior to some of the other ones researchers have presented, such as covering sharp tools with foam or making the robot move at well below its full speed. While both of these solutions can work, they also make the robots inefficient and limited.

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“Currently, we are in the founding process of the DLR spin-off Cobotect, and are planning to commercialize such solutions for various designs and sizes,” Hannes Höppner, the other researcher behind the project, told us. “Together with certification authorities, we are working to make a certified product for collaborative robotic applications [available] within the next two years. 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.]”

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