Human-Robot Collaboration: Work Safely and Innovate Together
By Carole Franklin, Director of Standards Development, Robotic Industries Association
Impact of Latest Innovations in Robotics Technology on the Industry
In the past, industrial robots and robotic systems were kept physically separated from the people working nearby. For example, a fence would keep people away from the robot while it was operating, and a system of sensors would turn off the robot’s power if a person entered the area. The person would need to intentionally restart the robot once he or she had left the robot’s hazardous area.
Now, with the advent of collaborative robotics, this paradigm is changing. Collaborative robotic systems are ones in which it may be possible for a person to work near the robot while it is operating and still be safe (a collaborative mode known as “power-and force-limiting”). Or, the collaborative system might place a temporary hold on the robot’s operation if a person approaches too near, with an automatic restart once the person moves away again (a collaborative mode known as “safety-rated monitored stop”).
Another growing area of robotic technology is mobile robotics. Not only can the person approach the robot safely as in collaborative robotics; now, the robot can approach you.
Collaborative robot systems are ones in which it may be possible for a person to work near the robot while it is operating and still be safe
So, collaborative robotics means more people can work in close physical proximity to robots and mobile robotics means the robots are moving freely about their assigned space, which may or may not also include people. Both of these trends have the potential to impact the electrical and information infrastructure of the plant.
The Top Technology Trends
Another new tech trend is the “Industrial Internet of Things” or IIoT, sometimes also called Industry 4.0. This describes the trend of making connections between what had been separate pieces of industrial equipment, enabling them to collaborate with each other autonomously. For example, a machine might send a signal that it is out of feedstock; this would trigger an automated conveyor belt to turn on and deliver more stock.
In addition, as collaborative and mobile robots become more familiar sights, and people attend meetings and access files and databases remotely, people may begin to wonder, “Why can’t I program or adjust or reset my robot remotely?” There may come a day when a robot could receive instructions from its operator while she is sitting at home on her couch.
This too is a paradigm shift and one which will likely impact both the IT (information technology) and OT (operational technology) communities. In the past, the industrial robot was not connected to the internet but was a self-contained system of a robot arm and its controller. The robot's human operator needed to be physically present on the plant floor to program it or adjust it. This limited the vulnerability of the robotic system from external malicious attacks. So, defending the system against malicious code was not a high-visibility task for the OT community.
But as the IIoT becomes a reality, companies must become aware that there are potential downsides to connecting everything—the benefits must be weighed against the risks before such connections are made. What would be the impact on productivity if malicious code subtly altered the performance of a machine such that its output had to be discarded? How long could it operate in this manner before it was detected? Or, what would be the impact on safety if malicious code attacked a system of mobile robots? Once these machines become more connected to the outside world, such risks become greater.
Vulnerability to malicious code must become a consideration for industrial machinery, including robots. And, those who have led the defense against malicious code in the IT arenas (business infrastructure) are potentially a great resource for future defenses against malicious code in the OT arena (operations infrastructure). The principles for safeguarding the system against attack may well be highly similar, and those with experience in this area can help their colleagues in the industrial machine and industrial robotics worlds.