The Brussels view: second-gen robotics coming under regulatory spotlight

By Abril 24, 2015PT

The first robotics revolution in the 1970s and 1980s refined the nature of assembly-line production, freeing human labour from the burdens of the particularly mundane, tedious, and dangerous aspects of mass production. In recent years, the robotics revolution has taken on a new dynamic, with automated vacuum cleaners and surgical tools constituting two instances where robots have been allowed “out of the cage”. The economic potential for new robotic applications has caught the eye of policymakers in Brussels, and this week the Parliament’s Legal Affairs committee launched its dedicated working group on robotics regulation.

Europe has been a strong global performer in second-generation robotics research. Indeed, a public-private partnership under the Commission’s flagship research programme Horizon 2020 will see approximately EUR 2.8 bn invested in the European robotics industry in the coming years.  But as a highly disruptive industrial innovation, the advent of second generation robotics throws up a myriad of policy questions. The first-order question relates to the impact of robotic automation on the labour market. Thus far the evidence is inconclusive as to whether the robotics revolution has served to be a net contributor or net diminisher to employment levels in Europe. Undoubtedly, policymakers will be eager to be seen to be doing something on this employment question, even if the scope for effective regulation is limited.

But there are also pressing concerns surrounding issues such as the liability of robotics manufacturers. This question is increasing in pertinence as more and more robotic applications involve an interaction with or working proximity to humans, thus heightening the risk of accidents. Ancillary to this, policymakers’ mandate to ensure consumer protection requires that minimum safety standards and regulations be set down, governing the manufacturing and application of robotic devices. Finally, the European robotics revolution is one that traverses the continent, and it is almost certain that some degree of harmonisation at the EU-level will be required to ensure divergent national regulation across Member States does not stunt the fledging sector’s growth.

It is in this context that the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs committe launched a dedicated working group on robotics this week. The working group will primarily focus on the kind of appropriate regulatory framework that is necessary for robotics, with due regard to liability, insurance, standardisation and related matters.

In a recent public communication, the Working Group’s chair Mady Delvaux (S&D, LU) called for the creation of an EU legal framework for robotics “providing the necessary economies of scale and competition for the industry and enabling it to flourish, while at the same time protecting workers and consumers and their fundamental rights”.

The working group will undoubtedly produce some important recommendations, and its outcomes could go a long way towards shaping the makeup of the regulatory framework for robotics that the EU ultimately adopts.

If you would like to learn more about regulatory outlook for robotics at the EU level, please contact the Political Intelligence Brussels office.