Robot mistakes man for box of peppers, kills him

Malfunctioning sensor system blamed for technician's death at Korean food plant

ROTM A man in his 40s was crushed to death by a robot at a produce-sorting facility in South Korea Tuesday after the machine apparently mistook him for a box of vegetables.

According to Korean media, the technician was diagnosing a problem with the robot's sensor package at the Donggoseong Export Agricultural Complex, ahead of a planned test run of the equipment Wednesday.

While the man was checking to see whether the sensor electronics were working properly, the robot reportedly took hold of him using its arm and tongs, crushing his face and chest. Officials believe the system misidentified the man as a box of food and tried to lift him up.

The victim was taken to the hospital, where he died as a result of his injuries.

The South Gyeongsang province plant has been using this robot to move food packages onto pallets for about five years, and it has come in extra handy when there's been a shortage of manpower, we're told.

The Korean-language Yonhap News Agency report, through machine translation, talks of the 'bot normally handling boxes of paprika; Western media is taking that to mean bell peppers seeing as it's a produce-sorting facility.

An official at the complex told reporters the accident occurred after a change to the plant's workflow to make the robot more efficient, requiring the aforementioned testing, and called for better safety measures to be established. The slain technician worked for the manufacturer of the robot, it is said.

This is hardly the first incident of an autonomous system harming a human. Last month an empty self-driving Cruise robotaxi hit and then proceeded to drag and trap a woman who had seconds earlier been struck by a human hit-and-run driver and fallen in the way of the autonomous vehicle.

The incident left the woman in critical condition and Cruise's operations in limbo amid an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As we reported Wednesday, Cruise issued an update to its self-driving taxis to prevent similar incidents.

Beyond agricultural, industrial, and transportation industries, datacenters are looking to robots to address personnel shortages. Last month, Microsoft listed an opening for a Hardware Automation Team Manager to oversee among other things the use of robotic systems throughout its network of datacenters.

The opening was listed after an outage at a Microsoft facility in Australia which the tech behemoth admitted was exacerbated by a shortage of staff onsite.

Oracle has also been trialing robotic systems including Boston Dynamics four-legged robodogs. Meanwhile at the OCP summit in October, Meta and Jtec demoed a robotic server cart capable of carrying entire datacenter racks weighting 1,500kg around. However, the system is still awaiting final safety tests. ®

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