Killer robot fears in South Korea as cops say worker was crushed to death by vegetable-packing machine because its sensors detected the box he was carrying


A vegetable packing machine crushed a worker in South Korea because its sensors detected the box he was carrying, police said, in a case that has heightened already growing fears around the dangers of killer robots.

The victim, a robotics company employee in his 40s, had approached the robot during his shift on Tuesday with a box in his hands when he was knocked into the conveyor belt by the machine’s robotic arms.

The man died of head and chest injuries after being snatched by the robot’s arms and crushed at a vegetable distribution center in the southern province of Goseong, police said.

Police said early evidence suggests human error was more likely the cause of the man’s death because the robot’s sensors, which are designed to identify boxes, had detected the box the victim was carrying before it crushed him to death.

But the worker’s death has heightened fears around the dangers of industrial robots and the false sense of security they can give to people working nearby in a country increasingly reliant on such machines to automate its industries.

This photo from South Korea’s Gyeongsangnam-do Fire Department shows the interior of a vegetable packing factory after a robot was reported Wednesday to be fatally in love with a worker in Goseong, South Korea.

The victim, who died in hospital from his injuries, has not yet been identified, but police said he was an employee of a company that installs industrial robots and that he had been sent to the factory to investigate whether the machine was working properly .

His death follows a series of accidents involving robots in factories in South Korea in recent years.

In March, a production robot crushed and injured a worker in his 50s who was examining him at an auto parts factory in Gunsan. Last year, a robot installed near a conveyor belt fatally crushed a worker at a dairy factory in Pyeongtaek.

The killer robot that crushed the worker to death Tuesday was one of two pick-and-place machines used at the factory, which packages peppers and other vegetables exported to other Asian countries, police said.

Such machines are common in South Korea’s farming communities, which face a declining and aging workforce.

“It was not an advanced artificial intelligence-powered robot, but a machine that simply picks up boxes and puts them on pallets,” said Kang Jin-gi, head of the investigation department of Gosong Police Station.

He said police were working with related agencies to determine whether the machine had any technical defects or safety issues.

The robot’s sensors are designed to identify boxes, and surveillance video indicated the man came near the robot with a box in his hands, likely triggering the machine’s response, the official said.

“It’s clearly not the case that a robot confused a human with a box – this was not a very sophisticated machine,” he said.

Meanwhile, an official from the Donggoseong Export Agricultural Complex, which owns the factory, called for the introduction of an “accurate and safe” system in a statement after the incident.

The victim had reportedly filled in to take tests originally scheduled for November 6.

They were postponed for two days due to reported problems with the robot’s sensor.

According to data from the International Federation of Robotics, South Korea had 1,000 industrial robots per 10,000 workers in 2021, the highest density in the world and more than three times as many as China that year.

Many of South Korea’s industrial robots are used in large factories such as electronics and automotive manufacturing.