Industrial mobile robot safety standards on the forefront

11/14/2017


Mobile robots are a moving target

Large mobile platform integrated with a vision-enabled material handling robot picks multiple product types and batches with greater efficiency. Courtesy: Bastian Solutions/RIANIST's research sheds light on the complexity of developing a safety standard for industrial mobile robots. Devising a safety standard for an autonomous mobile platform is one thing, but add a robotic arm or some other type of attachment, whether it's shelving, a conveyor, or tote, or another vehicle towed behind it, and now the safety implications become more intricate.

"Ultimately, if you can get the mobile platform and the robot arm to move in tandem, and are able to coordinate their motions such that you can place a tool specifically with high repeatability and accuracy anywhere within your virtually limitless work volume, that right there is a fantastic enabling technology," said Marvel, envisioning the possibilities.

"This also enables a highly dynamic work environment, one in which your assembly line can reconfigure itself to accommodate new processes or new batch jobs," Marvel added. "Goes with that agile manufacturing paradigm."

As the industry moves ahead with mobile robot pilot programs and more adoptions, the R15.08 committee will strive to keep up.

Marvel noted more challenges ahead for the committee. "For instance, if you have a mobile platform that for some reason shuts down or goes into an emergency stop, the attached arm needs to know this. It may actually need to know why, especially if it's trying to do a dynamic control situation where the motion of the mobile platform and the arm is coordinated to keep a tool in a specific Cartesian coordinate."

He said the same challenge arises for control signals. "The robot will tell you where it thinks it is. The mobile platform will tell you where it thinks it is. These signals then need to be integrated together. In some cases, we find that reported values for position and orientation aren't always what is internally represented."

In other words, by the time you get the report back from the robot, it's not in real time. It's old information. 

"There could be delay, jitter or lag, or just uncertainty about the positions as reported that can dramatically impact performance and safety of the entire integrated solution," Marvel said.

The R15.08 committee will need to take all of these considerations into account while writing the new safety guidelines. End-user input is critical to the process.

End-user insights are vital

Lewandowski and colleague Bob Bollinger, beauty sector robotics leader, are both on the committee along with many other end-user, industrial sector representatives. They say it's important to "check your company logo at the door" and discuss what's best for the technology as a whole.

Lewandowski has over 25 years with P&G. Bollinger has over 30 years in the industry; 18 with P&G. Both are part of the company's Robotics Technology Network (RTN). The RTN is a group of P&G employees that leverages its collective experience with robotic technology to determine how best to deploy the robots within the company. The network also evaluates and tests new robot technologies.

"As an end user, we need to be sure the standards are clear, usable and deployable, and that the products produced as a result of these standards can be used safely in the plants," Bollinger said. "I think end-user participation really helps ground the committee and determine what the use cases and challenges are. Hopefully we can come up with clear guidance on how to approach those challenges."

Standards scope

One of the first challenges the committee faced was to determine the extent of its scope. In an industry sector that is still evolving, with new startups and technologies entering the arena every few months, it's been difficult to narrow the focus.

Industrial, as it applies to the scope of the R15.08 Industrial Mobile Robot Safety committee, includes only the industrial use of mobile robots in the production of goods and related services. This includes structured and semi-structured environments in manufacturing, warehousing, and the logistics space.

"It is expected that people within proximity to mobile robots in the industrial space will have some level of training, so they know how to interact properly with the robots," Franklin said.

Outside of the scope are mobile robots that have interaction with the public, such as hospitality robots, personal care bots, healthcare and rehabilitation robotics, and robotic amusement rides. The guidelines will not cover these applications.

In this context, mobile refers to only ground-based systems. Airborne and waterborne systems are out of the scope.

Autonomous mobile robot equipped with a shelf attachment transports packages within warehouses while optimizing navigation around people and other obstacles. Courtesy: Fetch Robotics/RIAAlso out of the scope are platforms that are ridden, such as manned forklifts. Remote-controlled or tele-operated mobile systems are not included. Mobile systems on rails, such as gantry robots, also are beyond the scope.

A robot includes the mobile platform itself even without a robot arm mounted on top. But the mobile robot must have autonomous capabilities beyond a traditional AGV. Traditional AGVs will remain under the Industrial Truck standard (B56.5).

Franklin said the R15.08 document will be silent on the topic of modes of mobility, whether wheeled, uni-ball, tracked, or legged platforms. That means Boston Dynamics' bipedal robot is a candidate if Atlas is stacking boxes in the warehouse.

The safety standard will provide guidance to robot manufacturers for the mobile platform, the attachments (shelves, conveyor, or robot arm), and an integrated solution (mobile platform plus a robot arm designed and manufactured as single unit with one controller). For integrators, guidance will be provided for integrating a mobile platform with a robot arm.

Guidelines also will include hazard identification and risk assessment, plus address lockout/tagout (LOTO) recommendations for control of hazardous energy.

Part 1 for manufacturers and Part 2 for integrators is expected to be drafted by the end of the year. Part 3, which will provide guidance for end users, is deferred until a later time.

Charting new technology

An important part of the standards writing process is anticipating technology advancements, especially when the standard will help shape technological maturation in a developing area like mobile robotics.

"Technology tends to change at a more rapid pace than standards can be updated and developed," Lewandowski said. "The ultimate goal of the standards maker is to try to anticipate where things are going and not write standards in such a way that it will restrict or prevent the implementation of new and better solutions in the future.

"How you detect people within the zones around a mobile vehicle, today, it's historically done with laser scanners and lidar," he continues. "This whole revolution in 3-D vision systems and better detection systems (with spatial awareness) will enable a lot of different things in the future, so we need to make sure the standards are able to accommodate those types of advancements and technology."

"We don't want to block a particular new technology that wasn't known when the standard was initially developed," Gerstenberger said. "We don't want to impede technological progress. We want to enable it."

With those technological advancements, will come more complexity. Especially when free-ranging robots and humans will work in the same space.

Marvel said, "There's no such thing as a safe or unsafe robot. It's all about how you use it, how you integrate it. From there, you have to do your risk assessment."



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