Training Human Workers to be Smart Around Smart Machines

Farmer sprays his crops using a drone

With delivery drones, driverless trucks, cashier-less stores, robotic welders and even robotic insurance claims adjusters becoming more ubiquitous by the day, your newest coworker could very well be some kind of “A.I.” or robot. But as the buzz around these technologies fades and reality sets in, how can software publishers and capital equipment manufacturers ensure that client staff knows how to safely and productively work with or alongside increasingly autonomous machines?

Before pointing out the challenges it must be stated that, despite the media’s tendency to sensationalize incidents where autonomous machines (such as Uber and Tesla’s self-driving cars) injured or killed operators or bystanders, autonomous machines have generally improved safety wherever they’ve been introduced. Yet, without careful training, workers unfamiliar with autonomous machines and how they operate can put themselves and others at risk.  

The mining industry has been at the forefront of deploying autonomous vehicles, and overall they have improved safety by removing human operators from hazardous environments.  However, recent studies have found that when humans and autonomous vehicles do work in close proximity, accidents remain all too common, especially during bad weather.  

In healthcare, robot-assisted surgery has tremendous promise, though the rollout of machines has not been without incidents. For instance, a patient died after undergoing the UK’s first robot-assisted heart valve surgery in 2015. While the surgical team made several errors that day, many unrelated to technology, the fact that the lead surgeon had never trained on the surgical robot is alarming in hindsight. Meanwhile, medical schools haven’t been doing the best job of preparing tomorrow’s doctors to perform robot-assisted surgery.

So what can manufacturers do to maximize the benefit of autonomous equipment while minimizing safety hazards? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Give staff the chance to shadow autonomous machines on the job, and observe how they behave in a variety of situations and work conditions. In cases where it might be unsafe to follow machines too closely, provide videos or animations to give workers a closer look.
  • Create a “simulation mode”. If your equipment is controlled by software, look into the possibility of incorporating a practice mode where operators can see how the machine would respond to commands, without actually having the hardware connected. Building this into the actual software is typically easier to maintain than separate e-learning simulations mocked up from screen captures, which can quickly go out of date when the software interface is updated.
  • Provide online onboarding for your clients’ new hires. The riskiest time in the adoption of any new technology is when the people you trained during the initial implementation leave and new team members take their place. Even if clients can’t afford the cost (or the wait) to put every new team member through formal, in-person training, offering a quick online orientation for new hires and their supervisors can at least help ensure that customers are using equipment correctly.
  • Crowdsource support through forums or group chat. Autonomous machinery is a high-growth industry and everyone involved — your company, your customers and even your competitors — want to see the technology safely mainstreamed. Instead of handling support issues one-to-one, consider providing support via forums or group chats open to all your customers or even the public. This can lead to faster identification and troubleshooting of problems and ensure that your entire user base is alerted to issues and solutions as customers report them.

If you need help developing training or support resources for autonomous machines, or any capital equipment, contact Sonata Learning for a consultation.


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