Robots that learn, adapt and work autonomously will revolutionise our society over the next 20 years. Their development is an international race as governments invest furiously to keep up with technologies to support their economic growth.
Japan, Germany and the US already lead the way, but David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, believes the UK can catch up. In his ‘Great Eight’ report, he recognises Britain’s potential to be a world leader in robotics and automation. “With the strength of our automotive and aerospace industries it would be irresponsible if we did not support [robotics] research,” he explains.
The Government’s Technology and Innovation Futures report backs Willetts’ position. It predicts that the development of service robots – devices designed to assist humans with mundane tasks – will become an area of strong business growth for the UK over the next five years.
Already the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), which funds up to 75% of the cost of industry-university R&D collaboration, has made commitments to help support SMEs develop and adopt service robots for manufacturing. This is an astute approach: the investment helps manufacturers become more efficient, but also creates new robotic technologies for further commercialisation.
With extra government funding channelled through the TSB, Willetts is confident that Britain has what it takes. “Effective handling of data from a range of sources is key to autonomous systems and we have real strengths here,” he observes.
This robotic revolution will be good news for Yorkshire, a burgeoning hub for robotics research and innovation. Here labs are developing autonomous systems for numerous applications including nuclear decommissioning, prosthetics and surgery.
Last year Yorkshire became a key centre for UK robotics when the University of Leeds received £4.3 million from the Government’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to launch a National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems.
Set to open in October, the Facility will build on the Leeds’ strengths in robots for exploration and medicine. Industrial partners will be able to access the University’s world-leading equipment, including the world’s largest hard and soft 3D printer. It can use several different materials on the same build, for example making some parts hard and some parts soft. This variation is crucial for some of the advanced robots under development at Leeds, as well as for micromanipulation and cutting equipment need to construct minute robotic systems.
Sheffield also boasts a renowned robotics centre: SCentRo, a joint venture between the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam. SCentRo’s projects focus on making robots communicate intelligently and interact more closely with humans.
Recently, a team at the University of Sheffield developed robots that can perform tasks in swarms without using any memory or processing power. The ground breaking work paves the way for swarms of cheap, nanoscale robots to perform precision tasks, even delivering precise doses of pesticide and fertiliser in agriculture down to the nearest metre square.
The University of York’s Robotics Laboratory is also interested in swarm technologies. Here researchers are looking at how swarms could help to explore and monitor water resources and pollutants. “Marine robotic systems will be critical to [the] cost effective routine mapping and monitoring of the oceans and seas,” Willetts notes in his report
Another York project is creating swarm robots that can self-assemble into artificial ‘organisms’ which may soon be able to manage their own hardware and even self-heal when damaged. These robots could replace humans in difficult or dangerous tasks, for example in collapsed buildings to search for survivors, open up communication channels and lift rubble.
The beauty of robotics research is that work doesn’t stay long in the lab. As Dr Robert Richardson, Director of the Leeds National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems states: “We have reached the tipping point where research becomes products. Yorkshire is in a great position to capitalise on this.”