Addressing perceived workplace danger from robots through immersive virtual environments helps employees overcome their fears and collaborate effectively with robots in the workplace.
As robotics continues to advance, companies are finding more and more opportunities to transfer repetitive and tedious tasks to robots, freeing up their employees to focus more on tasks that can only be performed by humans.
One of the challenges of humans and robots working side-by-side (what researchers call human-robot work collaboration or HRWC) is the fear by human workers that their safety is compromised. Workplace accidents involving robots are in fact extremely rare, but that does not reduce the employees’ perception of danger.
Most work on robotics-related safety is focused on actual danger and little is done to address the perceived danger, which is even more impactful. Human behaviour is driven by perception. It doesn’t matter what is actually happen, we are going to react to what we think is happening.
To address this growing issue, a group of researchers first developed a theoretical foundation for human-robot collaboration that included three assertions:
The researchers then conducted an experiment to test these assertions using immersive virtual environments (IVEs) — computer-generated environments in which users can physically interact with virtual objects. The use of IVEs resolved one of the challenges of testing workplace safety issues involving robots, which is the cost of building robot prototypes for the tests.
In the experiment, 30 participants were randomly selected to work (virtually) with robots on a construction site under one of two conditions. In one condition, the participant and a robot worked side by side on a masonry job, but a safety fence separated the participant from the robot. (The masonry job involved picking up concrete blocks and placing them in a wall.) In the second condition, there was no safety fence in the work area the participant shared with the robot. After the 7-minute task, the participants filled out a post-questionnaire about the experience.
The experiment confirmed the researchers’ theoretical model: participants in the fence condition felt safer, and this perceived safety promoted team identification and trust, and increased the willingness of participants to work with robots in the future.
This experiment has several practical implications. First, companies need to design work environments that address any perceived danger. On a construction site, a safety fence addresses this danger without compromising the ability to monitor the robot’s actions. Second, IVEs is an effective training tool to help employees become comfortable working with robots in a virtual world before working with them in the real world. An immersive virtual environment is also an effective way to prototype better robots for specific tasks.
Enhancing perceived safety in human–robot collaborative construction using immersive virtual environments. Sangseok You, Jeong-Hwan Kim, SangHyun Lee, Vineet Kamat & Lionel P. Robert. Automation in Construction (2018).
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