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Top 10 People Killed By Robots

by Oliver Taylor
fact checked by Jamie Frater

With increased automation and advancement in the field of robotics comes the unique problem of robots killing humans. The fact that robots lack any mind of their own complicates things, since they just do whatever they were programmed to do. Most of the time, the problem arises when humans get in the way, and the robot treats them like whatever material it was working on.

This is why most robot-related accidents and deaths happen in factories, where robots work close to humans. An encounter between the two usually doesn’t end well for the human, since thin flesh is obviously no match for pounds of steel.

10 Joshua Brown

Joshua Brown is the first person killed in a self-driving car accident. He died on May 7, 2016, after the Tesla Model S he was driving through Williston, Florida, could not differentiate between an 18-wheel tractor-trailer and the bright sky. Brown’s Tesla passed under one side of the tractor-trailer and appeared from the other side. With its roof torn off, the Tesla then went off the road and crashed through two fences and a pole.

Tesla tried absolving itself of any blame in the accident. In a report, it noted that this was the Model S’s first accident in 130 million miles, which is below the industry average of 94 million miles. It also added that its vehicles’ autopilots were not perfect and required drivers to have their hands on the wheels.[1] Brown’s hands were on the wheels for only 25 seconds out of the 37-minute trip.

Investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed that neither Brown nor the autopilot applied the brakes. The airbags did not deploy until the vehicle had veered off the road and ran into some trees. Brown is believed to have died when the vehicle went under the tractor-trailer.

The driver of the truck, Frank Baressi, claimed that Brown was watching a Harry Potter movie at the time of the accident. Investigations by the NTSB revealed that there indeed was a micro SD card containing a Harry Potter film at the accident scene, but they could not tell whether Brown had been watching it with the Asus laptop or Chromebook found in the vehicle.

9 Robert Williams

Robert Williams is the first person ever killed by a robot. The accident occurred at a Ford factory in Flat Rock, Michigan, on January 25, 1979. Williams was killed after the arm of a robot hit him as he climbed up a shelf to retrieve some casts.

Ironically, the robot was supposed to be the one retrieving the casts, but it kept giving wrong information regarding the number of casts left on the shelf, forcing Williams to climb up. A jury determined that Williams’s death was caused by lax safety measures, including one that should have caused the robot to make warning sounds when around a human. His family was awarded $10 million.[2]

8 Nine South African Soldiers

Photo credit: Muraer

Nine South African soldiers were killed, and another 14 were wounded, after an anti-aircraft weapon started shooting by itself in 2007. The weapon involved was a Oerlikon GDF-005. It was being controlled by a system which is capable of finding, targeting, and engaging hostiles without human intervention. It can even reload all by itself, which could have made things messier.

South African troops had been training with the weapon at the Army’s Combat Training Center, Lohatlha, Northern Cape, when the weapon jammed and exploded before going berserk. It fired 250 rounds of high-explosive 35-millimeter rounds from its two barrels at the soldiers training with it.

There are suspicions that the accident could be due to either a software problem or a mechanical failure. Richard Young, an engineer and CEO of a defense company, stated that accident was not an isolated one, as he had seen automatic anti-aircraft weapons go berserk on several occasions. It was just that no one was killed in those incidents.[3]

7 Micah Johnson

Photo credit: Facebook

On July 7, 2016, Micah Johnson shot and killed five police officers in Dallas and wounded nine more as well as two civilians. He killed the first three officers around 9:00 PM, during a peaceful protest against the shooting of blacks in the US. Three officers and one civilian were also wounded in that shooting. He switched location and took refuge at El Centro College, where he murdered one officer outside before entering in to snipe at more officers.

A five-hour-long standoff ensued, during which police attempted negotiation, but Johnson threatened to set off some bombs. Police offered him two options: He either came outside and surrendered or remained inside and risked the use of force. Johnson didn’t come outside.

He soon realized what the police meant by force after they attached a brick of C-4 explosive to the arm of a robot and sent it into the garage where he was holed up. The explosion killed Johnson and damaged the robot.[4] The bombing was a first, at least among police departments in the US. More ironic was the fact that the robot was built to defuse bombs.

Prior to the incident, police had attached smoke and flash grenades to robots and used them to injure and stun suspects. SWAT teams also trained with explosive-strapped robots, but the intended targets were die-hard terrorists determined to fight to the end. However, US troops in Iraq have been attaching bombs to robots and using them against insurgents.

6 Kenji Urada

Kenji Urada was killed by a robot at Kawazaki Heavy Industries in Akashi, Japan, where he worked. The accident happened in July 1981, making him the first Japanese man to be killed by a robot. He was trying to repair the robot at the time of the accident until the robot pinned him against another machine and killed him. Attempts to free Urada from the robot’s grip were unsuccessful.

The robot had been taken off the line for repairs and was separated from other robots at the factory by a wire mesh fence. It was supposed to remain shut down whenever anyone opened the door and entered the confines of the fence.

However, Kenji never opened the door but jumped over the fence and got to work. His body rubbed against the machine and inadvertently switched it on. The machine came to life and pinned him against another machine, killing him.[5]

5 Unnamed Man

Photo credit: EPA

Tragedy occurred at a Volkswagen plant in Baunatal, Germany, in 2015 after an unnamed man was killed by a robot. The man was part of a team setting up the robot at that time, at least until the robot grabbed him and pinned him against some metal sheets, seriously injuring him. He later died of his injuries.[6]

The robot involved picked up components and fabricated them into car parts. It was usually kept in a cage, which was where the man was working on it at the time of the accident. In a statement, Volkswagen said they believed the incident was caused by human error. Another worker inside the cage with the deceased was untouched.

4 Wanda Holbrook

Photo credit: WZZM

In March 2017, 57-year-old Wanda Holbrook was killed by a robot at Ventra Ionia Mains plant in Michigan, where she worked as a maintenance specialist. The details of her death are scary.

The plant produced car parts and is divided into sections, with robots from one section supposedly unable to cross into another. We say “supposedly” because one robot did cross into the section where Wanda was working, picked up a trailer part, and dropped it on her skull, killing her instantly.

The robot was actually trying to load the trailer part onto a fixture that already contained another trailer part, which itself should have been impossible, since a fixture can’t contain more than one trailer part. Wanda’s husband, William, pressed charges against five companies involved in the production of the robot.[7]

3 Ana Maria Vital

Ana Maria Vital, 40 years old, was killed by a robot at Golden State Foods in City of Industry, California, in 2009. The robot involved was a palletizer, which stacks boxes on pallets.

A box had become stuck in the robot, and Maria entered its cage to remove the box. The robot was still on, and it grabbed Ana Maria as if she was one of the boxes it was working on. The robot crushed Ana Maria’s torso, and she remained in its grip despite attempts by mechanics to free her.[8]

2 Ramji Lal

In 2015, 24-year-old Ramji Lal was stabbed to death by one of the robots at SKH Metals factory in Manesa, India, where he worked. The robot involved lifted and welded metal parts together. It had lifted a metal sheet, but it was not properly positioned, and Lal had tried to adjust it. He wasn’t fast enough, and the arm of the robot stabbed him in the abdomen. There were also reports that he was electrocuted to death.

Lal didn’t die in the initial accident. He was rushed to a hospital, where he died between 20 and 30 minutes later. An autopsy revealed that his ribs and abdomen were totally crushed, and he had died of internal bleeding. There were no signs that he was electrocuted. However, the police insisted that he died of electrocution.[9]

1 Regina Elsea

Photo credit: Facebook

In June 2016, Regina Elsea was killed by a robot two weeks before her wedding. She was 20. The accident happened at Ajin USA, a South Korean-owned plant in Cusseta, Alabama, that made parts for Hyundai and Kia vehicles.

On the fateful day, Elsea and some coworkers had been trying to repair the faulty robot. They were not supposed to attempt repairs, but no one answered the series of calls they made to the maintenance department. Their decision turned out to be a bad one after the robot suddenly restarted and pushed Elsea against another machine, seriously injuring her. Elsea was taken to East Alabama Medical Center before she was flown to UAB Hospital, but she died the morning after the accident.

An inquiry into the accident revealed that Ajin USA committed several safety violations because it wanted to maximize profits. In fact, the US Labor Department had slammed the company and two staffing agencies with a $2.7 million fine over 27 safety violations just two weeks earlier. The inquiry also revealed that Ajin USA overworked their employees—sometimes requiring them to work seven days a week—and encouraged them to repair faulty machines.[10]

fact checked by Jamie Frater