Cobots will increasingly find uses in the workplace. But no robot is infallible.
Rise of the Cobots
known as cobots, are
rapidly expanding in
the workforce due to
their versatility. But
they bring with them
By Juliann Walsh
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, a cobots’ sensors didn’t pick up the movement of a
toddler on the sidewalk who was trying to play with the 5-foot-tall, egg-shaped figure.
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
Engaged to help, this cobot instead did harm, yet the use of cobots is
Cobots are the fastest growing segment of the robotics industry, which is
projected to hit $135.4 billion in 2019, according to tech research firm IDC.
“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).
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
Today, they are rapidly being deployed in the automotive, plastics,
electronics assembly, machine tooling and health care industries 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.
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 on site to tweak duties. Most
employees can learn how to program them.
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?” asked attorney Garry Mathiason, co-chair of the robotics, AI and
automation industry group at the law firm Littler Mendelson PC in San
“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
Is it a product defect? Was it
“Cobots have taken the robotics
an issue in the base code or in the
industry by storm over the past
—Bob Doyle, director of communications, Robotic
• More than 24,000 robots
were ordered from American
manufacturers in 2016
• Lawsuits from workers injured
by a robot can spread beyond
the exclusive remedy of workers’
• Doctors who committed errors
while using robots in surgery were
held liable for a lack of training.