A new ISO standard for the safety of personal care robots has been released by the International Organization for Standardization.
As machines capable of understanding human speech, gestures and touch become more commonplace, the prospect of service robots like those in sci-fi movies becomes ever more real.
But due to their close interaction with humans, errors or faults in service robots could result in serious or even fatal accidents – for example, if an exoskeleton misunderstands a command and turns right instead of left, this could inadvertently put the user in a dangerous situation.
"Although robots have been around for a while, they have been mainly restricted to the manufacturing sector where they have had little or no contact with people. As this begins to change, careful risk assessment is crucial to ensuring our safety, which is exactly what ISO 13482 will help us do,” said Professor Gurvinder Virk, convenor of the ISO working group that developed the standard.
“Because personal robotics is such a new field, there are as yet no internationally-recognised safety regulations or guidelines. Companies are therefore reluctant to take the risk of investing and launching a new robot product in case something goes wrong and they are taken to court, where they will struggle to prove that they did everything they could to ensure their product was safe."
While simple devices such as the Roomba vacuuming robot are unlikely to cause harm, as developers try out new applications there can be bigger risks, said Virk.
"It is difficult for an individual company, or even a single country, to define acceptable safety regulations," he added. "In order to allow the industry to move forward, international discussion and consensus is needed, and this is what ISO 13482 represents.
“The much awaited standard gives researchers, manufacturers and regulators a basis to measure and monitor products that are unlike anything we have had before."
The draft version of the standard has already been applied to some inventions. In 2012, a company in Japan began trialling an exoskeleton which, when worn over a user’s legs, can detect brain signals instructing it to walk. In addition to helping people with infirmities and spinal injuries to move, it can also be used by nurses, emergency responders and other professionals for additional support when lifting heavy weights like human bodies.
"We realise that the industry is still in its infancy and thus expect to update ISO 13482 as technology evolves to make sure the requirements remain up date, and people interacting with these new machines are safe," said Virk. "Additional ISO guidance is already being developed with the foremost experts in the field."