Robotic guides that show tourists the way in an unknown city. Robots that operate patients, performing a surgery on their own, only supervised by a surgeon. One could say we are living in the times of robotification.
Many types of machines are becoming more “autonomous” where before a human operator was always in control, different machines now start to control themselves. And where before robots were only found as manipulators for efficient mass production to be found in factories. Nowadays robots are entering the “human environment” and are moving among us and are even interacting with us: a true robot revolution is taking place!
On first thought you would maybe not call an “autonomous car” a robot, but if you think more about it, it certainly makes sense to use the R-word: an autonomous car moves around and it controls its own movement. It has all elements to be a robot! This is not only happening to our cars, but has already happened in robot vacuum cleaners and is also about to happen in advanced surgical equipment. For example for brain surgery. And so on and on and many fields of application, everywhere we will see robots.
An important aspect to be considered in this robotification of technology is safety. Safety of a device is determined by its design and operation, but a robot, now that robots are being designed to move autonomously in a human environment, can never be 100 % safe, accidents will happen. Safety of products in our society is based on the principles of regulation (when and how is a device allowed to be sold and used) and litigation (how are accidents resolved). Both sides are in development when it comes to robots. It has to be defined what is an acceptable risk when using robots, how to test and evaluate this, and finally how to deal with accidents.
In Europe regulation is implemented as the Conformité Européenne (European Conformity) or CE–mark, a well-known quality mark that demonstrates whether a specific product has been designed and tested (if required) following the regulations as they are valid for that type of product. Depending on the application area of the product (medical, industrial or consumer product), as well as depending on the potential risk of using the product, different regulations apply.
In a way, a robotic product is a product like any other, it is electric, so it has to follow the rules for electric safety, and it is motorized, so it has to follow the rules for mechanical safety but at the same time, robots are more complex devices, with more complex behaviour and thus more risks for users and bystanders.
Because of this, different organizations are working on improving safety regulations when it comes to robots. Methods on how to demonstrate safety are developed by international experts in working groups. Such groups are set up by organizations like International Standardization Organization (ISO) or the International Electro-technical Commission (IEC). Currently different groups are studying the safety of robots.
ISO has recently set up a new Technical Committee on Robotics (TC299) that groups all such activity, and the IEC comes into play when it comes to medical applications of robots. All major “robot countries” are represented in such meetings, with people from their industry or testing institutes, for example USA, Canada, European countries and Japans, China, and South Korea.
Examples of study groups are: working Group 2 on Personal Care Robot Safety (Personal Care means in this context: not for medical use, and not for industrial use), that studies safety of “person carrier robots”, such as the well-known Segway, of “physical assistant robots”, such as exoskeletons and of “mobile servant robots” of the type that drive around and provide you information.
In this field a standard was already agreed in 2014 by international experts and such devices can be brought to the market. Even though the standard provides the basic principles for the safety it does not yet specify how to best test the different devices, while testing is the best way to demonstrate safety; this is what this study group is currently working on.
Imaging a Segway type of robot, it may be important to do crash tests, similar to what is done with cars, to measure both the safety of the driver as well as the bystander that could be potentially hit by the robot. Another safety test could be observing what happens when driving on a slippery slope, or when hitting the curb. It may be clear that tests have to be very different when it comes to an exoskeleton, compared to a person carrier robot or compared to a services robot that drives around indoors. This means that many different types of testing have to be developed and agreed upon by international experts.
Other working groups are working on developing surgical robot safety, or safety for robots that are used for medical physical therapy or support, again for example exoskeleton robots, but now developed for patients. All developed safety procedures are based on a specific and detailed risk analysis that has to be made of any “medical electrical equipment” and on which then a risk/benefit analysis has to demonstrate that the device can be used with an acceptable level of risk for the patient and the operator.
In the medical field there is a lot of hesitation both on the side of the manufacturers and the regulators to call specific devices actually “robots” – the word robot sounds like more danger, it sounds like the surgeon or therapist replaced by a machine – and the market is not ready for this.
In reality, for now, and for a long time to come, there is always still the human ‘in the loop’ but whether the robot is helping the medical personal, or the medical personal helping the robot is becoming less clear, whether we call these new devices robots or not.