In Isaac Asimov’s classic series of short stories "I, Robot," he lists the first law of robotics as, “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”

Yet in the real world of warehouses and distribution centers, there is no such caveat. As a result, robotics are usually either isolated completely or cordoned off by fences, light curtains or other barriers in order to prevent humans from putting themselves in harm’s way.

While creating a “no fly zone” for humans makes sense from a safety standpoint, and may even be required by Robotics Industry Association (RIA) standards (which OSHA follows), it takes up valuable floor space that could be put too much better use.

In short, although robotic isolation works, it’s the equivalent of not allowing any development on the valuable land around airports just in case a plane crashes. The effect in an operating environment is that valuable space is routinely rendered unusable.

This approach also gets in the way of efficiency. Currently, when a robot needs help to correct an error, the operator must enter the safety zone through a gate in the physical barrier. Many times entry calls for following a lock-out procedure to ensure the system is not inadvertently re-energized by someone else.

This approach limits the way an operator can access the system to correct the error, which adds time to recover, lengthening downtime and reducing overall productivity.

Rather than building safety zones, the smarter solution is to re-think how humans and robots interact – or should interact – to integrate that first law of robotics as part of the fundamental design of the unit.

That is where the human/robot interaction is headed.