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Monday March 09, 2020

CSPC and ASTM Brainstorm on Emerging Tech Safety Challenges

Discussion February 27 between CPSC and ASTM staff on wearable technology quickly expanded into how the two organizations are adapting to emerging technology broadly. A general theme of the in-person meeting at the agency's Bethesda, Md., headquarters was that overlapping and amorphous boundaries between issues are driving a rethinking of whether and how traditional regulatory and standards-making frameworks might need to change. A primary driver of such questions is that the trends are not industry specific.

  • CPSC must deal with issues that cross into other agencies' jurisdictions. This is not an entirely new challenge as it has done interagency work on issues like nanotechnology for years. However, taken as a whole, emerging technology is likely to affect nearly all the agency does. Its more recent interagency activity on the Internet of Things (IoT) might serve as a model and framework – especially on issues like wearable technology, where the challenges and even the experts and stakeholders are largely similar.

  • ASTM must expand its view outside "siloed," product-specific committees to a more "holistic" approach. A possible model is the organization's past projects on matters like sustainability that similarly blur industry boundaries. An outcome of this thinking is ASTM seeking to put more investment into pre-standards research. It also must take extra care to ensure all people with relevant expertise participate in discussions to avoid repetitive or contradictory work across once-unrelated committees. Other models likely will come from ASTM attention to additive manufacturing as well as from its newer group on exoskeletons.

The "exo" issue illustrates another challenge – how technology seen today as outside the consumer realm is unlikely to stay that way. Development currently targets industrial and military applications. However, just as tools such as nail guns once were deemed exclusively occupational but eventually became widely commercially available, so too will exoskeletons most probably. It becomes even more possible considering non-tool applications like overcoming physical limitations for recreation/sport or enhancing exercise, education, or transport/mobility.


In the end, just as wearable technology can be seen as a subset of IoT, exoskeletons are a subset of wearables. As with wearables – or micromobility (PSL, 3/2/20) – the hazards run the gamut from the traditional (mechanical, electrical, thermal, chemical) to software compromising physical safety whether via hacking, glitches, or updates. Embedded items mean attention to questions once limited to medical devices. AI and virtual reality might risk mental health.


Meanwhile, because emerging tech tends to involve entrepreneurial and younger developers – sometimes still in college – both CPSC and ASTM see challenges in ensuring awareness of safety requirements. The two-hour roundtable discussion thus also included reaching out to such people.


On the other hand, an interesting outcome for ASTM is renewed dynamism and participation in some of its oldest and once rather ossified areas such as calibration, metrology, and feedstocks. The first two touch on ensuring that products behave as intended and the intertwined issue of measuring bodily activity accurately. The last involves materials used in additive manufacturing.