Robotics: the legal issues

23 April 2019 | By Karen Morean

Robots may inadvertently collect personal data which needs to be handled and stored in accordance with applicable data protection laws.– Karen Morean, Charles Russell Speechlys

Karen Morean, solicitor at Charles Russell Speechlys, looks at potential legal issues as construction moves to embrace robotics.

The well-documented skills shortage in the construction industry is likely to be exacerbated by both Brexit and an aging workforce. Low productivity rates are another longstanding concern, particularly when the construction industry’s performance is compared to the manufacturing sector.

Is it possible that robotics might to alleviate some of these problems? Some commentators seem to think so. While the fragmented and volatile nature of the industry hinders investment in innovation, there are already some examples of automation in use, including autonomous vehicles, prefabrication using robots and robotic bricklayers.

However, innovation in technology can create interesting new legal issues, which might include the following:

1. Maintenance

Suppliers may be required to provide an appropriate level of maintenance and support to allow the proper functioning of the robots.

Users will need to consider the extent to which the supplier will be required to train the robot or whether the supplier will simply be providing the hardware and associated code.

If robots are used on projects long term, who will be responsible for updating the software and managing any problems?

2. Contingency planning

In the event of planned or unplanned maintenance or supplier insolvency, users ought to put in place contingency plans and business recovery systems.

This might take the form of the use of manual labour, redirecting work to a different part of the site or finding an alternative supplier.

3. Intellectual property

Will the user own the robot and associated software or will the supplier provide a licence?

In the case of robots utilising AI, consideration should be given to who will benefit from the robot’s learning while on site.

While the supplier would have supplied the robot and software, it is the user who is providing the data and stimuli which is facilitating the robot’s improvement.

4. Use of information

Robots may have access to proprietary information such as site plans, drawings and designs.  Users need to be confident that such information is not being passed back to the supplier without authorisation.

Robots often respond to both visual and audio cues through the use of microphones and cameras. This may mean that they inadvertently collect personal data which needs to be handled and stored in accordance with applicable data protection laws.

Risk allocation

Users will need to consider risk allocation in the use of robots. For example, who carries the risk of errors and defective work by the robot? What if the robot causes harm to persons or property? Will insurance be available to cover these risks?

Are new health and safety systems and training required to ensure the safety of the combined human-robot workforce?

Users must also be mindful of cyber-risks and how these can be mitigated, for example through insurance, software or indemnities in supplier contracts. As the use of robots becomes more widespread, they may be increasingly targeted by fraudsters, terrorists and malicious attacks.

Initially, it is likely that there will only be a few robotics suppliers, which may be small companies of limited financial strength. Users will need to consider the risk of supplier insolvency as well as the availability of alternative suppliers in the market.

There will invariably be a steep learning curve in the industry while it grapples with both the legal and practical ramifications of having a combined workforce of manual and automated labour.

But the potential benefits to using robots on construction sites – including increased productivity, less risk to human health by utilising them on high risk tasks, and reduction in human error – are too great to ignore.

Image: Ekkasit Jokthong/Dreamstime.com