Humans and Robots Become Co-Workers

As part of Europe’s COVR robot safety project, the Fraunhofer Institute IFF in Magdeburg is researching collaborative technology that helps advance the digitalization of production processes.

The next generation of industrial robots are, in fact, cobots. The “co” is from “collaboration”: cobots work alongside people with no physical guards to separate them. But this level of proximity also poses a new challenge in terms of people’s safety. As part of a unique European project, the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation IFF in Magdeburg, Saxony-Anhalt is researching and promoting the practical safety aspect of collaborative robotics.

Robots are strong, precise, and never get tired; people are discerning, creative, and experienced. The use of cobots combines the characteristics of these “co-workers” in a specific way. The term is a combination of “collaboration” and “robot,” and means exactly that. Unlike conventional industrial robots, which are installed behind safety fences and perform the same task for years on end, cobots work in close proximity with people. And there’s more: these innovative electronic colleagues feature finely tuned sensors that even allow them to respond to and interact with humans.

“Digitalization has boosted demand for flexible automation solutions. So collaboration between robots and humans is increasingly becoming important for many sectors of the European market. But that inevitably raises safety issues, i.e. how to protect people in shared workspaces,” says Dr. José Saenz. Research scientist Saenz heads up the Assistive, Service and Industrial Robots Group at the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation IFF in Magdeburg. Based in Saxony-Anhalt’s state capital, the Fraunhofer Institute is one of the world’s leading lights in automation and safety.

100 partner organizations from 14 European countries

The IFF is also a co-initiator of the European project, “Being safe around collaborative and versatile robots in shared spaces (COVR),” which is conducting research into the safety of human-robot collaboration and promoting its practical application. COVR’s aim is to support more widespread use of collaborative robots in a wide range of industries and domains. “We have allocated over five million euros in funding to third parties from the robotics community to test our standardized safety protocols with specific use-cases, which then provides us with background research and experimental data for determining best practices. We have funded 60 experiments featuring over 100 partner organizations from 14 different European countries,” says Dr. Saenz.

In collaborative work situations, traditional protective devices are no longer enough. Cobot forces, speeds and movements have to be monitored and restricted, and the cobots stopped if the need arises. For example, in one of the funded and supported COVR projects, MRK Systeme GmbH developed an innovative safety sensor system that detects humans in very close proximity to robots in shared workspaces and can stop the robot before it physically touches a person. In the test, the robot was moved at a variety of speeds. In consultation with the Fraunhofer IFF, MRK Systeme also developed a special electrode for the test, with sensor responses similar to the behavior of a human hand. The company is now in a position to carry out independent tests on new sensor prototypes and robot/sensor combinations without having to use a real person as a test object.

Safety guidelines will benefit end users

This is one example of how the Fraunhofer IFF’s EU-funded COVR project is helping to support collaborative robotics technology. “Because for end users, robot component manufacturers and system integrators, safety has often been a barrier,” says Saenz. In European legislation, employee safety is the number one priority. Employers therefore see the need for “certification,” i.e. compliance with mandatory essential requirements of safety and health, as a pressing need. “This proof of compliance is especially challenging for smaller companies.”

COVR will systematically break down these current barriers. The project offers various company support mechanisms. Along with direct funding there is a public domain website featuring case studies for cobot applications as well as information on risk assessments and relevant standards and directives. In addition, 20 protocols have been written in the form of easy-to-follow, step-by-step guides that allow businesses to execute their own application validation measurement based on device type and company-specific safety requirements. Especially for companies in and around Saxony-Anhalt, access to the IFF’s safety laboratories and to training and support on digitalization with collaborative robots is something of a home advantage. Firms can experience “cobotics” up close and personal, and obtain helpful tips and advice for their applications.

A cornerstone of industry 4.0

COVR is driven by five Research and Technology Organizations – the Danish Technological Institute, the Italian National Research Council, the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, Roessingh Research and Development from the Netherlands, and the IFF in Saxony-Anhalt. Cobots are important in the digitalization of production processes, which means that the IFF’s interactive human-robot collaboration work in Magdeburg is playing a key part in the progress of Industry 4.0.

Author: Michael Falgowski/IMG Saxony-Anhalt 

Saxony-Anhalt relies on the innovative strength of young companies from the information and communications industry. Well over 2,000 innovative and in some cases internationally active ICT companies with around 16,000 employees covered by social insurance are currently based in the country. The majority of these companies are active in software development and IT services for other companies.

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