A man in South Korea died this week after he was crushed by an industrial robot that could not differentiate him from a box of vegetables, according to local reports.
The employee, who has not been publicly named but was in his 40s, was inspecting the robotics at a pepper-sorting plant in the country’s South Gyeongsang province, the South Korean news agency Yonhap said on Wednesday.
At the time of the incident, the man was testing a sensor on a robotic arm of a pick-and-place machine responsible for moving boxes of peppers from a conveyor belt and onto palettes for transportation. The robotic arm grabbed the employee with its claw, pinning him to the conveyor belt, the BBC reported.
The robot’s grip crushed the man’s chest and head.
He was transported to hospital but later died as a result of his injuries.
It is unclear whether the robot was defective or improperly designed. The Associated Press reported that early evidence suggests human error was likely to blame for the tragic incident. A local police official said the man was seen in security footage carrying a box in his hands near the robot before he was grabbed. Authorities believe this may have triggered the robot’s improper response.
The official said the robot “wasn’t a very sophisticated machine,” so it did not have the ability to differentiate between the employee and the box.
Local police said the man, who was employed by the robotics installation company, was examining the robot’s sensor ahead of a test run at the pepper factory.
Donggoseong Export Agricultural Complex, the company that owns the vegetable plant, called for safer, improved systems to do with robotics testing and implementation.
The pick-and-place robot involved in the incident is one of two machines used in the pepper factory. These machines are common in South Korea’s agricultural communities, which are struggling with a declining and aging workforce.
“It wasn’t an advanced, artificial intelligence-powered robot, but a machine that simply picks up boxes and puts them on pallets,” said Kang Jin-gi, who heads the investigations department at Gosong Police Station.
South Korea, like many countries, has heavily invested in robotic automation for both industrial and non-industrial spheres. The man’s death this week triggered public concern and questioning about the safety of industrial robots and the false sense of security they may give to humans working in the same area.
South Korea has had other accidents involving industrial robots in recent years. In March, a manufacturing robot crushed and seriously injured a worker who was examining it at an auto parts factory in Gunsan. Last year, a robot installed near a conveyor belt fatally crushed a worker at a milk factory in Pyeongtaek.
According to data from the International Federation of Robotics, South Korea had 1,000 industrial robots per 10,000 employees in 2021, the highest density in the world and more than three times the number in China that year. Many of South Korea’s industrial robots are used in major manufacturing plants for products such as electronics and auto-making.
— With files from The Associated Press