Robots and drones for easy working

Computers, drones and robots are projected to relieve workers in dangerous and monotonous jobs. But will hazardous jobs simply be made safer, or perhaps replaced entirely?

Although the airplane is the safest mode of transport, in the event of a crash, the risk of death is much higher. Photo: AIRBUS

You don’t need statistics to understand that the job of miner is one of those most plagued by accident and death. But in the few mineshafts of the Western world that are still manned, the working conditions are far less hazardous than those of their Chinese counterparts. As recently as November 2016, 33 mineworkers died in Chongqing in the country’s South-East. Fatal accidents and catastrophes remain a horrifying part of everyday life in many developing nations. In 2013, over 1,100 died in a single textile factory fire in Bangladesh.

As callous as it may sound, it isn’t surprising that these jobs are fraught with so much danger. Upon the founding of the World Trade Organization in 1994, the US administration of the time demanded the inclusion of minimum working conditions in contracts. Developing nations were against this, as they would no longer be able to play their trump card so freely – cheap labor. The situation was similar in Western Europe in the early days of industrialization. Children swept dirt and collected debris in perilous conditions under the spinning looms. Prior to the advent of motorized forestry and logging vehicles, steam winches were the order of the day. Their operators risked life and limb – the steam engine could explode unexpectedly, or the steel cable could snap, annihilating everything in its path. In building the Hoover Dam in 1930’s America, the mantra was “ill, injured, out” – with so many people queuing up for work, laborers were expendable.

Such reckless exploitation of human capital has largely been eradicated in Western society. Yet – despite all safety and protection measures – there are still dangerous jobs in Germany, Europe and the USA. Lifesavers of all types are among those most at risk: police officers, soldiers, firefighters, lifeboat crew and mountain rescuers. The same can be said for those involved in construction, agriculture and forestry, even though the days of steam winches are long behind us. Deep-sea fishing and professional driving are also on the list of most dangerous professions.

Other jobs may not be life-threatening per se, but their execution can have long-term consequences on health. Those involved in tough physical labor must generally accept that in old age, their knees or backs may no longer be what they once were.

In jobs that present an acute danger to life, or lead to impairments that necessitate retirement from the profession, modern technology can make work both safer and easier to execute in a health-sparing manner. In other industries, such as care and agriculture, the danger doesn’t stem from the task at hand, rather their monotony, exhausting nature and low financial reward. Those involved in the asparagus harvest sure feel their work at the end of each day.

Many of the problems cited can be effectively addressed by modern technology – the buzz-term “Industry 4.0” has been making rounds for some time. German research institutions are at the forefront of trials and development – often just prototypes that explore where technology may one day lead us, but also fully developed, practical solutions.

Roofers live dangerous lives and the risk of accident is ever present. A fall from the roof of a family home can be survived with a little luck, but the same cannot be said of a 30-meter church spire. Other sectors face similar problems – wind turbines, dams and bridges can only be inspected with a great deal of effort, and sometimes at risk of life and limb. The civil engineering faculty of the Bauhaus University Weimar decided to address this. They equipped drones from Ascending Technologies with high-caliber digital photo and video technology. The drones’ cameras shoot thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of individual photos of the construction requiring inspection. From these images, their computer creates 3D models of the objects, with exact location and measurement data as well as any faults or damage highlighted. The drones can’t yet repair said damage though. We humans remain irreplaceable in this task.

Weimar University’s civil engineering faculty inspects building using imaging technology, allowing for 3D modeling Photo: Weimar University

In the future, modern technology could be adopted to assist and ensure the safety of such maintenance workers. Many companies and research institutes are working on exoskeletons – a kind of robotic suit. These are intended to help lift heavy objects easily and safely. Up to now, many such exoskeletons have been clumsy and unsafe. Stuttgart’s Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA) intends to change this with its prototype, which is currently being trialed in cable assembly for a bus manufacturer as well as in baggage handling at Frankfurt Airport. Institute Spokesperson Ramona Hönl estimates the prototype will be production-ready within three years. The exoskeleton – with a projected price of 30,000 euros – is unlikely to be adopted by small workshops, but would be a prudent investment for firms in manufacturing industries that need to maintain a high level of output. The German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) in Bremen is trialing a similar concept in cooperation with a shipyard.

Oil rig workers are also considered to be in a high-risk profession. The Fraunhofer Institute’s solution for work in this unforgiving environment is the MIMROex. According to the IPA, the mobile maintenance and inspection robot is the first of its kind. It independently assesses pipes, records data and presents this to the operator via a central database. Even the MIMROex is not a replacement for human workers, though – the robot needs to be manually relocated to work sites around the rig. However, once in position, it performs exhausting but necessary routine inspections automatically and saves workers the arduous, lengthy and error-prone task of documenting everything.

Colleagues at the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation (IFF) go one step further with ANNIE; a robot that aims to support workers in a different way to conventional industrial robots. Instead of being fixed in location, ANNIE is fully mobile. She can hold workpieces steady or even hand tools to the worker on demand – with the help of voice control. Annie remains a prototype for now. In cooperation with the IFF, a cauliflower harvester is also in development – an evolution of the Institute’s “Spargelpanther” asparagus picker. Many agricultural operations struggle to find suitable harvest workers – Germany’s minimum wage, introduced in 2014, has proven a challenge for farmers, as it seems Germans don’t want to bend down and pick asparagus for ten hours a day for this amount. The task is more complex for cauliflowers – both human and mechanical harvesters need to push the leaves to the side to check whether the vegetable is ripe for picking yet. The “VitaPanther” has a hyperspectral camera which assesses whether the cauliflower can be harvested yet.

There are very different issues to contend with in outer space. To this end, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) Robotics and Mechatronics Center in Oberpfaffenhofen has been tinkering with the Rollin’ Justin robot since 2008. Justin could one day help in colonizing Mars, as its automatic systems could independently perform tasks in the inhospitable Martian atmosphere. Operation of Justin’s upper body from large distances was trialed by the DLR in 2015. Within the scope of the Kontur-2 project, the robot was operated from the International Space Station by way of force-reflecting joystick.

Such force-feedback joysticks are known to many console and computer game players, yet these don’t provide a full representation of the forces at work on the robot. The aforementioned DFKI Bremen went one step further in summer 2016. In the almost Martian desert landscape of the US state of Utah, the researchers constructed their robots which were then controlled from Bremen using an exoskeleton. Similar to a digger driver who feels what is happening around them through the movements of their vehicle, the operator of the hightech suit also felt direct feedback from the robot and its tools.

ANNIE from the IFF-Fraunhofer is on call to help out at work Photo: Frauenhofer IFF

Whilst unspectacular at first glance, smart glasses such as those from Vuzix are just as helpful, as they provide the user with additional information or even augmenting the reality around them with digital information by using a video camera – for example indicating where a component is on a machine. Depending on the purpose and local circumstances, the information is provided by WiFi, cable or a micro-SD card in the glasses themselves. Such glasses are available from a range of providers. The challenge for practical usage is in processing video feeds in a user-friendly manner. This includes the accurate layering of reality and additional data for each user. At the DFKI in Kaiserslautern, Dr. Nils Petersen is developing software to automate this process as part of his dissertation. This would open other fields of application for augmented reality glasses. The firm IOXP was founded to continue research into this field.

Such concepts have also been considered and trialed with the police. This technology could, for example, help speed up the identification of suspects to see if there are warrants for their arrest. However, basic protection is often more important for the men and women in blue. When a gunman in the Texan city of Dallas killed five police officers in mid-2016 before hiding in an inaccessible parking garage, the police deployed a robot to disable the perpetrator using an explosive charge. Sharpshooters and other special forces were unable to get close enough to the murderer without putting their own lives in danger. After this event, there was heated discussion in the media as to whether robots may ever be used to kill. However, the machine itself made no decisions, and instead acted as a remote-controlled extension of the long arm of the law. Even mine-sweeping robots used by militaries and ordnance clearance taskforces just do what their operator tells them to via remote control. Were these machines to be fully-automated, one would have to reconsider the question of responsibility.

In many countries, the road remains the most prevalent site of fatal accidents. The majority of accidents can be attributed to human error. Long-distance truck drivers are subject to a range of different sources of risk. Their high annual mileages, often over 100,000 kilometers – are a source of extreme stress. Tight time frames in loading and unloading goods as well as the adherence to all legal driving and rest time regulations only serve to increase pressure. At the other end of the spectrum is the monotony of night driving, which makes it easy to lose attention and increases the risk of dreaded micro sleeps. When there is an accident, it is in most cases a serious one. Reports of collisions involving trucks often begin with the number of casualties and fatalities in the accident.

Emergency braking assistants help in tackling this issue, and are becoming industry standard for new trucks. Indeed, as of November 2015, they are compulsory for all new heavy trucks registered in the EU. It would, however, be foolhardy to dismiss the fact that a large proportion of international road freight is handled by firms from low-income countries which often use older trucks with higher mileages.

From a technological perspective, we have reached the point at which trucks may drive themselves. But before this can happen, there are many legal issues to be addressed. Experts assume that the technology will not only prevent accidents caused by human error, but also dramatically change drivers’ responsibilities. The technology would allow driving time to be instead used for handling navigation and traffic issues, thus further improving the efficiency of such autonomous systems. Autopilots won’t completely replace drivers in the foreseeable future, rather just in certain areas. In relieving drivers of stressful highway traffic, autonomous trucks don’t just make the job safer, but also protect other road users.

Mercedes Benz is trialing autonomous driving on public roads with its “Future Truck 2025” Photo: Daimler AG

Text: Karl-Gerhard Haas

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