Joanne Pransky, associate editor of Industrial Robot, recently interviewed Gurvinder S. Virk, an expert in robotics, controls, engineering, and computer science. He is currently technical director at Cambridge, U.K.-based Innovative Technology & Science Ltd. Virk discussed his experiences and the importance of international robot standards.
Virk studied electronic and electrical engineering at the University of Manchester and obtained a Ph.D. in control theory from the Imperial College of London. He has served as a lecturer, senior lecturer, and professor of control, robotics, and related fields in the U.K., New Zealand, Germany, and Sweden.
For the past 35 years, Virk has produced over 350 refereed publications, filed four patents, and been involved with several spin-out commercial ventures. They include DVM Consultants, Ambient Energy Systems Ltd., and Portech Ltd.
In addition, he led the creation for the first International Organization for Standardization (ISO) safety standard for personal care robots (EN ISO 13482) and was invited to preside over the ARGOS Challenge committee to evaluate autonomous robots for oil and gas production sites. Virk is also working on wearable exoskeletons to affordably assist the elderly.
This interview is available free to Robotics Business Review readers until Sept. 1, 2017. Here’s a preview:
Pransky: How did you first get interested in robotics?
Virk: When I was doing my Ph.D. in control engineering at Imperial College, I was trained to see everything as an advanced abstract theoretical system with inputs and outputs that could be optimized and solved with sufficient analysis and mathematics.
This changed when my research focus changed from developing control theory to actually applying it to solve real-world problems. I did this because it seemed more important than just developing and publishing another optimization algorithm. With this change, my emphasis towards engineering started to grow, and I became more interested in real problems rather than academic ones.
Robotics in those days was mainly driven by fixed-base manipulators, which I did not find very interesting, as the main issues were again rather mathematical, such as the kinematics of the robot arm and its dynamic control to perform various manipulation tasks. I was keen to work on aerospace, process, and building energy.
It was when I moved to Portsmouth, U.K., in 1995 and took over a group that was connected to a company called Portsmouth Technology Consultants — Portech Ltd. — that I was introduced to the area of mobile robots.
The Portsmouth group was involved in developing legged robots with Portech and had realized a variety of climbing robots using magnetic and vacuum suction adhesion for climbing and moving around in hazardous environments such as nuclear power stations and tall buildings.
We were also involved in an European project called RoboVolc … where we developed a mobile robot to investigate volcanic environments. Mount Etna in Sicily, Italy, was the demonstration test site, which had to be explored during volcanic activity to collect gas and ash samples from active vents.
That was about the time when the companies we were collaborating with thought the technology could be used in general-use scenarios, but we experienced difficulty in commercialization due to the high value of the robots.
After considerable discussions with partners, we concluded robot modularity was important to reduce costs so that open plug-and-play robot components could be developed via major collaboration.
For this, I proposed the creation of the EC Network of Excellence on Climbing and Walking Robots (CLAWAR), with modularity as a central theme. CLAWAR was funded by the EC in 1998 to 2005, and it led to many organizations wanting to work together and to a common approach to drive the area of applied robotics.
Some of these organizations were companies that wanted to commercialize their technology. In about 2002, we learned that the research prototypes being developed with the various R&D projects were light-years from becoming products.
That led to more discussion within CLAWAR, and we identified the main problem as being missing international standards and missing safety requirements especially. Safety requirements had not been formulated for these new robotic systems where close human-robot collaboration was essential, and so we contacted the ISO to express our concerns about the need for new safety requirements for robots and humans to safely share workspaces with operational robots.
At that time, ISO 10218 was the only safety standard for robots, and this ensured safety by separating the industrial robots from humans via physical or virtual work cells.
ISO is a consensus-based organization, and its role is to react to international needs. When the ISO secretariat receives letters about issues, they are responded to. For example, when one letter is received, the issue is noted. If two letters on an issue are received, it clearly is more important and is normally worthy of being explored.
We organized about 20 letters to be sent from CLAWAR members to ISO national organizations on the need for robot standardization. This caused quite a stir, and I was invited to attend a meeting of ISO TC184/SC2, which was responsible for robot standards at the time.
The international balloting approved the creation of the new study group in 2005, and we spent a year investigating the need for robot standards and recommended the creation of new working groups at the 2006 meeting of the SC2.
These groups started major activities in personal care robot safety, service robots, and how the robot vocabulary should be updated to align with developments. This changed the standardization landscape, and even the traditional industrial robot sector started to explore collaborative modes. …
Later, medical applications for robot standards were started, and safety standards for medical robots are being now formulated as part of medical electrical equipment.
Pransky: How are safety standards implemented?
Virk: Basically, by education and informing. We’ve been trying to do that for the last seven or eight years now through CLAWAR and through the euRobotics’ Topic Group on Standardisation, which I am leading.
More and more researchers are becoming involved, and although they recognize that HRI [human-robot interaction] is very important, they still just go off and develop their own method of doing something without looking at the regulatory framework that exists and if their solution has any chance of being implemented in reality.
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Pransky: How do you administer these international robot standards throughout the world?
Virk: It is up to the national regulators to adopt the published standard in their legal regional framework. Presently, we have robots in many sectors, but there are two main ones. The first is regulating robots as machines, which is what we have done since the 1960s, when industrial robots were introduced in manufacturing applications. The first robot standards were published in the 1980s.
The rules are made by the regulators, but as a robot manufacturer, you can do your own risk assessment and decide your machine is safe according to the published rules based on your risk assessment and tests carried out. Hence, your product can be deemed to comply with the rules and you can self-certify.
Of course, if the machine causes an accident, you will need to go to court to defend your decisions and prove how you satisfied your self-certification decision. For a small company to prove that they have done everything can be quite challenging, as they may not have engineers who are up to date on the latest and emerging regulations, and it could be easy to make mistakes.
I would suggest that companies in the initial stages restrict the use so that their machines are not able to cause too much harm. To be a little bit safer from litigation, it may be better to go to a notified body able to perform safety tests and then provide formal certification or marking to prove the product satisfies the international safety requirements.
The other main robot sector is medical electrical equipment. For this, medical robots must be tested by a notified body that is able to provide the certification.
There are other emerging areas such as drones, aerial vehicles, water-borne machines, driverless cars, and agricultural machines. These are all being referred to as robots. How they will be regulated is unknown, but it is clear robotics is growing and boundary and overlap issues as well as gaps in the various application domains will need to be investigated.
Pransky: What do you think is the greatest challenge today facing robot standards?
Virk: You have to be able to standardize the robot testing itself because how you implement the testing is another nightmare if the new tests are not consistent and conflicting results are obtained by different test houses.
The development of new test protocols may also be required where new test equipment such as new test sensors are needed, and all these new implementations need to be made normative for consistency. This is to ensure that tests carried out by different test organizations give consistent results.
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