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KUKA's HRC technology in the medical industry: massaging muscles, transplanting hair or assisting in the operating room

KUKA is a leader in the field of human-robot collaboration. This complex technology is increasingly being used in highly sensitive areas - such as medical technology. Very specifically, KUKA offers the LBR Med, a robotic component that can be integrated into a medical device. The finished medical products assist doctors in the operating room, move the legs of bedridden patients, massage tired muscles or transplant hair from the back of the head to the forehead. A look behind the technological scenes of human-robot collaboration with Otmar Honsberg, Vice President Global Application Engineering in KUKA's robotics division.

Ulrike Götz
October 18, 2022
Reading Time: 3 min.

When robots work so closely with humans or even touch them on the head or massage their backs: What properties must a robot have for such applications to work?

Otmar Honsberg: "First and foremost, certified and reliable safety technology. When we talk about human-robot collaboration at KUKA, we are always talking about responsibility. Humans are clearly in the foreground; the robot should help humans, and under no circumstances should it endanger them. Robots must therefore meet high safety standards. There are certainly different ways of dealing with such requirements. At KUKA, we differentiate here between safety functions that protect humans when handling the robot and functions that make the robot itself safe. We are only satisfied when the robot is safe in its specific application. Our cobots such as the LBR Med, which has been certified as a component for integration in medical devices since 2017, or the LBR iisy are ideally suited for this purpose.

Hair trans-plantation by robot

Venus Concept

How would the cobot react if a dicey situation were to arise? Would it simply stop or move back a few centimeters?

Otmar Honsberg: "For each robot application, permissible limit values are defined and validated in advance. As soon as these are exceeded, the parallel safety controller intervenes and stops the system. This is then called "yellow" technology. However, there is also the option of using the so-called "gray" technology. This works with lower limit values and individually programmed functions. This allows "soft switching" or an individually defined application of the system as a reaction. The two variants offer a great deal of scope for implementing a safe application."

What is special about the use of HRC robots - i.e. cobots - in the medical sector?

Otmar Honsberg: "Here, it is first worth taking a look at the different forms of human-robot collaboration: coexistence, cooperation or collaboration. In coexistence, humans and robots work side by side, the workspaces do not overlap and there is no provision for touching the robot.  In cooperation, a common workspace is shared. Humans and robots can work in defined shared workspaces. Touching is not foreseen in the process, but can happen. In collaboration, humans and robots work together and touch is scheduled. For example, the human guides the robot by hand to a specific work point. 
In medical technology, there is another special variant of collaboration. The robot performs an action directly on the human or patient. In my opinion, this challenge to safety technology is the "top class". Only a few dare to take on this challenge. We can now look back on successfully implemented projects in this area." 

The iYU massage robot, with the integrated LBR Med, is designed to integrate massage into people's daily lives and make the lives of physical therapists easier.

Take a look into the future: How will the topic of "human-robot collaboration" develop? 

Otmar Honsberg: "There are a variety of applications where humans and robots share work in a meaningful way. And these will continue to become more prevalent. Both sides will take on the work packages where both humans and robots can play to their respective strengths. Humans' strengths lie in accessing experiential knowledge, reacting to unplanned situations, improvising and using their senses in combination with each other. These are skills that a robot still lacks. Its strengths currently lie more in performing repetitive tasks with high accuracy, speed or greater effort. The robot assists humans and makes their work easier - much like a pocket calculator. In the future, the working worlds of humans and robots will increasingly merge thanks to modern sensor technology, such as that already in use in massage robots, and alogrithmics as well as intelligent software. Figuratively speaking, a modern smartphone will then develop from a calculator and telephone."

iYU massage robot

Capsix Robotics

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