Robots and automation are now a part of our everyday lives, but the risks they pose are far from the stuff of our sci-fi fantasies.

From manufacturing to medicine, to the world of finance and now even our own homes, autonomous machines and systems are rapidly proliferating. All these robots are raising new issues for insurers, but also for their manufacturers and those drafting standards.

Public liability, professional indemnity, and property damage are some of the emerging areas for concern, but while robotics may be a new field, the issues of risk and liability they present are not.

A robot’s world

Robots and automated systems have been a common part of industrialised manufacturing for decades, but into the future more and more workplaces will become the domain of robotics. Driverless cars are widely expected to be commonplace in the next decade, and that will have knock-on effects for transportation and agriculture. “It will be more to improve productivity than safety,” says Peter Corke, a leading roboticist at Queensland University of Technology.

Corke says the hospitals of the future will certainly feature robots. “People are talking about robot orderlies, moving patients, taking samples to the lab, all these kinds of menial transport tasks.” Hospitals in the US have trialled robot orderlies for many years, and they are now used in some European and US hospitals, but in the near future Corke believes this type of automation will be commonplace.

Already, there are 3000 Da Vinci surgical robots in hospitals worldwide. “They don’t do fully autonomous surgery, but compensate for the tremors and small jitters of surgeons,” says University of Qld researcher Hanna Kurniawati.

Roboticists like Kurniawati and Corke both see collaborative robots that work among humans as the next major development in the field. Kurniawati sees tele-presence robots, operated remotely but working among humans or serving customers, becoming increasingly commonplace. “The person at the remote location can control what the robot does, navigating the store and attending to customers,” she says.

Corke sees robots with increased functionality becoming increasingly autonomous and operating with less control and supervision. “Ultimately you’re going to give a person 10 robots, and they are going to be a manager of robots.” Training Systems Australia imports one such collaborative robot called Baxter, which is able to adapt and learn simple tasks. “You don’t need to program it. You demonstrate a task, and then it repeats,” says Corke.

At the moment, Baxter has been picked up by universities and corporate labs for research work, but Training Systems’ managing director, Peter Birnbaum, says they will soon have the next generation of Baxter, named Sawyer, available for commercial use. “We expect at least 100, if not more, within industry by the end of 2016,” says Birnbaum.

Isolation to collaboration

Generally, those who use robots have minimised liability and risk by having robots operate in complete isolation. Robotic arms operate at great speed inside a safety cage, with power cut if an employee enters the exclusion zone. With the move to collaborative robots that work among humans, risk increases dramatically.

As human contact with workplace robots increases, so does the potential for
physical injury due to malfunction or misuse. Already, multi-million dollar lawsuits have been brought against Intuitive Surgical, the makers of the Da Vinci robot, after patients died after surgery using the device.

William Pagnon is the founder of robot developer Freelance Robotics, and says it was very difficult finding adequate cover for the work his company does. “I had to work with my broker for three to four months to be able to find insurance that would accept my profession,” Pagnon says. To find cover and reduce premiums, About Risk Director Marc Anderson instructs his clients to source components from inside Australia where possible.

Mark Sbaglia, Allianz’s Pacific Liability Manager, says that although the field is still new, insurance can be provided under a general and products liability policy, though such a policy would have to be uniquely tailored on a case-by-case basis. “Who is the company? How long have they been making robotics? Who’s the end customer? Their loss history will give us a good indication of how safe they are,” Sbaglia says. For Pagnon, the main cover was public liability and professional indemnity insurance.

Implementing appropriate international and national standards will also provide insurers with more peace of mind. The International Standardisation Organisation is currently reviewing a new technical specification, TS 15066, that will outline standards for collaborative robots that are not covered under the more general ISO 10218 robotics standard.

Right now, standards frameworks and insurance policies lag behind the advancements in technology and could be limiting commercial use, but Pagnon believes this is a good thing.
“A slow adaptation is a good adaptation. It lowers risk and the unknown.”