Robotics Risk

Collaborative Robots Swarm the Workforce

Collaborative robots, known as cobots, are rapidly expanding in the workforce due to their versatility and ability to work alongside humans.
By: | January 19, 2017 • 7 min read

When the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto hired mobile collaborative robots to bolster security patrols, the goal was to improve costs and safety.

Once the autonomous robotic guards took up their beats — bedecked with alarms, motion sensors, live video streaming and forensics capabilities — no one imagined what would happen next.

For some reason, sensors didn’t pick up the movement of a toddler skirting around the sidewalk attempting to play with one of these 5-foot-tall, egg-shaped figures.

The 300-pound robot was programmed to stop for shoppers, but it knocked down the child and then ran over his feet while his parents helplessly watched.

The use of cobots — collaborative robots that perform tasks alongside humans — is rapidly gaining popularity and they are the fastest growing segment of the $1 billion U.S. robotics industry.

Morgan Kyte, senior vice president, Marsh

Yet, while cobots help reduce worker injury by handling or assisting in dangerous tasks, they also introduce unexpected risks with unanticipated legal and insurance consequences.

“Robots are embedding themselves more and more into our lives every day,” said Morgan Kyte, a senior vice president at Marsh.

“Collaborative robots have taken the robotics industry by storm over the past several years,” said Bob Doyle, director of communications at the Robotic Industries Association (RIA). “That’s because they have created this opportunity for robots to work side-by-side with humans.”

When traditional robots joined the U.S. workforce in the 1960s, they were often assigned one specific task and put to work safely away from humans in a fenced area.

Today, they are rapidly being deployed in the automotive, plastics, electronics assembly, health care and the machine tool industry due to their ability to function in tandem with human co-workers.

More than 24,000 robots valued at $1.3 billion were ordered from North American companies last year, according to the RIA.

The collaborative robotics market alone is predicted to expand tenfold from 2015 to 2020, according to a study published by ABI Research.

Cobots Rapidly Gain Popularity

Cobots are cheaper, more versatile and lighter, and often have a faster return on investment compared to traditional robots. Some cobots even employ artificial intelligence (AI) so they can adapt to their environment, learn new tasks and improve on their skills.

Their software is simple to program, so companies don’t need a computer programmer, called a robotic integrator, to come onsite to tweak duties. Most employees can learn to do it.

While the introduction of cobots into the workplace can bring great productivity gains, it also introduces risk mitigation challenges.

“Where does the problem lie when accidents happen and which insurance covers it?” asks attorney Garry Mathiason, co-chair of the robotics, AI and automation industry group at the law firm Littler Mendelson, PC in San Francisco.

“Cobots are still machines and things can go awry in many ways,” Marsh’s Kyte said.

“The robot can fail. A subcomponent can fail. It can draw the wrong conclusions.”

If something goes amiss, exposure may fall to many different parties:  the manufacturer of the cobot, the software developer and/or the purchaser of the cobot, to name a few.

Is it a product defect? Was it a coding issue in base code or in the design? Was something done in the cobot’s training? Was it user error?

“That’s where the gray areas come in,” Kyte said. “Where does the liability fall?”

Garry Mathiason, co-chair, robotics, AI and automation industry group, Littler Mendelson

In the case of an employee injury, is it a workers’ compensation case or a liability issue?

“If you get injured in the workplace, there’s no debate as to liability,” Mathiason said.

But if the employee attributes the injury to a poorly designed or programmed machine and sues the manufacturer of the equipment, that’s not limited by workers’ comp, he added.

“It’s going to be unique each time,” Kyte said.

“The issue that keeps me awake at night is that people are so impressed with what a cobot can do, and so they ask it to do a task that it wasn’t meant to perform,” Mathiason said.

He said he was surprised to see the type of lawsuits that cropped up after doctors started using robots to assist with surgeries. The disputes didn’t involve the machines or the manufacturers. They questioned the doctors’ training and how the robots were used to perform surgeries they weren’t designed for.

Privacy is another consideration. If the cobot records what is happening around it, takes pictures of its environment and the people in it, an employee or customer might claim a privacy violation.

A public sign disclosing the cobot’s ability to record video or take pictures may be a simple solution. And yet, it is often overlooked, Mathiason said.

Growing Pains in the Industry

There are going to be growing pains as the industry blossoms in advance of any legal and regulatory systems, Mathiason said.

“Collaborative robotics — as wonderful as it is and as many uses as it has — you’ve got personal injury concerns, workers’ compensation concerns,” Mathiason said.

He suggests companies take several mitigation steps before introducing cobots to the workplace.

First, conduct a safety audit that specifically covers robotics. Make sure to properly investigate the use of the technology and consider all options. Run a pilot program to test it out.

Most importantly, he said, assign someone in the organization to get up to speed on the technology and then continuously follow it for updates and new uses. Also assign an individual to keep track of new legislation and regulations.

The Robotics Industry Association has been working with the government to set up safety standards. One employee can join a cobot member association to receive the latest information on regulations.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion about this technology and people see so many things that could go wrong,” Mathiason said.

“But if you handle it properly with the safety audit, the robotics audit, and pay attention to what the standards are, it’s going to be the opposite; there will be fewer problems.  

“Cobots have taken the robotics industry by storm over the past several years.” — Bob Doyle, director of communications, Robotic Industry Association

“And you might even see in your experience rating that you are going to [get]a better price to the policy,” he added.

Without forethought, coverage may slip through the cracks.  General liability, E&O, business interruption, personal injury, cyber and privacy claims can all be involved.

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“You can’t look at the E&O exposure with robotics without looking at the products exposure, the [general liability],” said Jeanmarie Giordano, global head of professional liability at AIG, who spoke about managing the risks of cobots in a webcast hosted by A.M. Best.

AIG’s Lexington Insurance introduced an insurance product in 2015 to address the gray areas cobots and robots create. The coverage brings together general and products liability, robotics errors and omissions, and risk management services, all three of which are tailored for the robotics industry. Minimum premium is $25,000.

“It’s an evolving marketplace but from an insurance perspective, we’ve tried to come up with an end-to-end solution for our insureds that also provides for growth and evolution,” Giordano said on the webcast.

Insurers are using lessons learned from the creation of new cyber liability policies and are applying it to robotics coverage, Kyte said. The industry needs to stay consistent in coverage and language.

“It can get confusing for brokers when there are claims policy forms with different terminology,” Kyte said.

The insurance industry may need to take the lead in managing the risk as cobots become the next global innovation to transform the workplace in ways still unimagined.

“The robotics industry has been very safe for the last 30 years,” RIA’s Doyle said. “It really does have a good track record and we want that to continue.” &

Juliann Walsh is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

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