Humans have worked with robots on factory floors for years. But while large-scale industrial robots are undeniably helpful, they can also be extremely dangerous. These robots lift huge pieces of machinery. So, if a human gets in the way, heads can roll.

The current solution is to bolt the bots to the floor. However, another safety measure is kind of sad. “Robots in factories today are literally kept in cages,” Clara Vu, co-founder and vice president of engineering at Veo Robotics, told CNBC.

Vu knows something about emancipating robots. She helped program iRobot’s roaming Roomba 20 years ago. Now, Vu and Veo have unveiled technology to free Roomba’s more powerful cousins from their cages.

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The Massachusetts-based company recently rolled out Veo FreeMove. The new sensor technology endows robots with spatial awareness. For example, if a bumbling human gets in the way, the monitoring system tells the robot to slow down or stop. When all is clear, the robot resumes its work as programmed.

Veo teamed up with some of the world’s biggest robotics companies to develop FreeMove. In the effort, the startup equipped existing robots with computer vision software and 3D depth sensors, as well as Microsoft Xbox Kinect depth cameras.

Tests with automotive and household appliance manufacturers followed. The aim was to bestow large-scale industrial robots with the ability to interact safely with humans as smaller robots do in other industries.

Why Free the Robots?

While the use of robotics primarily began in large-scale manufacturing, robots have now moved into smaller-scale industries like food service, law enforcement, and health care. These smaller, less dangerous robots carry the moniker “collaborative robots” or “cobots.”

Related: Robots in the field: The UK deploys world’s first raspberry picking robot

Cobots work near humans as helpers, not replacements. The integration of spatially aware cobots into larger-scale manufacturing not only makes for a safer work environment but also assuages some of the fears about robots replacing human workers.

Nearly half of the labor in the global workspace has the potential for automation, according to a report by McKinsey & Company. This work accounts for roughly $16 trillion in wages. One of the areas most susceptible to automation is work involving physical activity in highly predictable environments. In other words, factory work.

But rather than seeing the autonomous machines as a threat to workers, Veo’s CEO and Co-founder Patrick Sobalvarro understands the value of cobots working alongside existing workers to create a new type of factory workforce. “What we hear from every factory, every line manager…is that they can’t hire enough production workers. The production labor workforce is aging out,” he said.

Overall, a primary advantage of cobots is that they can do the heavy lifting alongside humans. Therefore, physical strength will no longer be as big an obstacle in hiring new workers. And maybe, just maybe, freeing robots from their cages will prevent the robot apocalypse.  

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