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UK Robotics Week 2019 – What we learned

By Chris Middleton July 2, 2019
SUMMARY: Chris Middleton presents an exclusive report, where he considers the opportunities and challenges facing the robotics sector in 2019 and beyond.

UK Robotics Week culminated in a showcase event in London last week, which brought together many of the country’s thought leaders, academics, entrepreneurs, and policymakers in this hotly contested space, together with some cutting-edge technologies.

Welcoming delegates to the fourth annual event, Prof Guang-Zhong Yang, Chair of the UK-RAS Network – the division of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) that focuses on robotics and autonomous systems – said that his organisation funded the event to “bring the industry together and engage in conversation”.

A bustling marquee near the conference room showcased a broad range of advances, from robotic wearables, hands, and arms, to companion robots, medical devices, and biomorphic drones that model the behaviour of bees. New interfaces for human-robot interaction were also on display, as were the next generation of programmable ‘cobots’ (collaborative robots), such as Eva by UK specialist Automata.

It succeeded in those aims, and with presentations from Rannia Leontaridi, Director of Business Growth at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Director of the new Office for AI; Professor Lynn Gladden, Executive Chair of the EPSRC; Professor Yang Gao, Director of the FAIR-SPACE robotics hub at The University of Surrey; Assistant Professor Amanda Prorok from the Department of Computer Science and Technology at Cambridge University; and Helen Fulson, Chief Product Officer at Twinkl, among others, the showcase also provided a welcome statement of women’s growing leadership in this industry.

The event felt diverse, busy, and bursting with ideas – at a time when women (11 percent of UK STEM workers and just 10 percent of engineers) and ethnic minorities (less than ten percent of UK STEM workers) often appear marginalised at technology conferences. The more visible women and minorities are at these events, the more others will be inspired to follow them into senior roles – and into STEM careers.

Leontaridi observed that she was “among friends”, adding that her remit at BEIS is centred on “things that are small, beautiful, and willing to grow” in the economy. Via the Industrial Strategy, the government wants to improve productivity and nurture new sectors, she said, with intelligent automation helping to solve some of the biggest socio-economic problems. These include the Grand Challenges: healthy ageing, future mobility, clean growth, and preparing the economy for the rise of artificial intelligence (AI).

Leontaridi acknowledged that more needs to be done to foster a healthy robotics and AI sector for the long term, including the introduction of light-touch regulation that will help to drive new industries in the UK without creating barriers to them. She said:

Government can play an important role in bringing people together and unlocking the potential for funding and guidance.

The EPSRC’s Gladden explained that UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) – the body that combines the seven UK research councils (including the EPSRC and Innovate UK) and works in partnership with universities, businesses, charities, and government – has renewed UK-RAS’ funding for a further three years.

She explained:

This will help support UK Robotics Week’s public engagement, thought leadership, and coordination activities. The UK-RAS Network plays a key role in supporting universities in their scientific and research endeavours in robotics and autonomous systems. It allows them to share their best practice and new thinking, encourage new talent, and promote the use of responsible research and innovation.

Twenty-eight universities partnered with UK-RAS to stage Robotics Week this year, with sponsors including the Robotics Hubs, oilfield services giant Schlumberger, the Wellcome Trust, and many more.

That said, Gladden acknowledged that UKRI is just a year old and, as such, is “a work in progress”. Yet its core advantage is its ability to link researchers with industry, government, and charities, while retaining what she called “the immediacy of big ideas”.

Government involvement

Notable by its absence at the event was any mention of Brexit. This was a relief to delegates, no doubt, but the UK’s on/off future outside the EU remains the spectre at the feast, casting a pall over strategy, taking up valuable time, energy, and talent that should be delivering the Industrial Strategy, and calling into question long-term funding and policy priorities.

Among the recipients of government backing in recent years have been the four Robotics Hubs, which are designed to help speed UK research and innovation out of its universities and into new commercial partnerships.

The Hubs had a strong presence at the showcase. Alongside Professor Gao, head of the Future AI & Robotics for Space Hub (FAIR-SPACE), there were keynote presentations from: Professor David Lane, chief of the ORCA Hub (Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets); Professor Barry Lennox, Director of the Robotics and Artificial Intelligence for Nuclear Hub (RAIN); and Professor Rustam Stolkin, head of the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR), which focuses on safe decommissioning – a £200 billion cost savings opportunity.

The Hubs were funded through UKRI as part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund’s (ISCF) Robotics for a Safer World Challenge, which has focused over £93 million of investment on developing RAS solutions for extreme environments. These are commonplace in industries such as offshore energy, deep-sea infrastructure maintenance, space technology (including satellite communications), deep mining, and nuclear power.

Such environments present unique opportunities for robotics simply because they are lethal or hazardous to humans. They also share a number of challenges, including communications problems, radiation or other lethal emissions, lack of oxygen, low visibility, and more. As a result, technologies that have been developed for one application – such as AI, shared control systems, computer vision, robotic grippers, and so on – may have commercial potential in others.

A US delegation at the event saw potential in collaborating with the UK in these fields. Dr. Ron Diftler, Chief of the Robotic Systems Technology Branch at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Dr Stephen Hart, Senior Scientist at robotics research group TRACLabs, and Professor Mitchell Pryor, Research Scientist at the University of Texas, set out their joint response to the Hubs’ pioneering work. More on this in a separate report, which will explore extreme environments opportunities in greater depth.

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