Will the country that began the first Industrial Revolution exclude itself from the next?
By Tom Green
January 25, 2013
Here we go again
1949 was the last year that somehow, some way either the British government or its military needed to step up with big-time investments into the Cambridge and Manchester computing programs.
A homegrown, bona fide British-built computing company might have resulted. Albion certainly had the brain power and innovation skills in the likes of Alan Turing, Maurice Wilkes, Max Newman and Tommy Flowers to pull off one, maybe more. Sadly, none ever came to pass. The UK—and the rest of us—are the less for it.
1949 is important because that’s the year that Britain announced its National Research and Development Corporation (NRDC), which eventually doled out a paltry $4M over three years on the nation’s computing efforts. Way too little, way too late. In comparison, America poured billions into computing. John Hendry’s, Innovating For Failure. Government Policy and the Early British Computer Industry (1989) details the sorry tale.
The NRDC’s contribution wouldn’t cut it; and by the time that the Ministry of Technology (MinTech) arrived on the scene in 1964, the jig was up: America had nearly a decade’s jump in computer building and software development experience that it wouldn’t see threatened until the ascent of globalization some sixty years later. Inventive though he is, the biggest name in British computing today is still Dr. Who.
Will this gruesome tale repeat itself with robotics? It appears not to be the case, if the country’s recent investment is just the beginning of proper funding for what just might be the start of the next Industrial Revolution. And if one considers what is happening on the Continent with the EU’s Horizon 2020, this is shaping up to be another make it or break it moment similar to 1949.
Now fast forward to 2013
Drives & Controls News: The UK has announced plans to invest $55M to fund research into robotics and autonomous systems as part of a $954M program to promote eight areas of science and technology that it believes will help to propel the UK’s future growth. In addition, the Technology Strategy Board has launched a $1.59M competition to help accelerate concepts in which robots interact with each other and with humans.
The $55M will be used mainly to create centers of excellence in robotics and autonomous systems, located in and around universities, innovation centers, science parks and enterprise sites, with the aim of bringing researchers and industry together.
The new plans were announced by David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, in a speech in London. He was setting out details of the $954M program first announced by the Chancellor in his Autumn Statement last year.
Willetts announced new investments totalling $954M, for:
- New facilities and equipment for advanced materials research in areas such as low-energy electronics, advanced composites, high-performance alloys and telecommunications;
- Creation of R&D facilities to develop and test new grid-scale storage technologies;
- Development of the Advanced Metrology Laboratory at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington; and
- A whopping $300M for “big data” and energy-efficient computing.
Taking technologies through to market
In his speech, Willetts said that the Government needed to capitalize on the “unique” strengths of the UK’s research base by backing the right technologies and helping to take them through to market (exactly the mission of the EU’s Horizon 2020)
“Strong science and flexible markets is a good combination of policies,” he said. “But it is not enough. It misses out crucial stuff in the middle – real decisions on backing key technologies on their journey from the lab to the marketplace. It is the missing third pillar to any successful high-tech strategy. It is R&D and technology and engineering, as distinct from pure science. It is our historic failure to back this which lies behind the familiar problems of the so-called ‘valley of death’ between scientific discoveries and commercial applications.”
And what of robotics?
Turning to the decision to earmark Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) as one of the eight key technologies, Willetts pointed out that, at the moment, “there is no single leading major industrial prime leading the development of the technology”. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council funds much of the current research on RAS, but it has so many different applications across different industrial sectors that the R&D effort is fragmented.
Last October, Willetts convened a meeting of RAS experts to discuss what could be done to promote the technology. The discussion showed the need for greater co-ordination of research.
As a result, the Technology Strategy Board is creating a Special Interest Group on Robotics and Autonomous Systems that will soon produce an outline technology roadmap to promote future investment.
The participants in last October’s meeting also proposed academic centers of excellence that would conduct basic research and translate it for commercial application. The newly-announced $55M of funding will help to create such centers of excellence in robotics and autonomous systems in and around universities, innovation centers, science parks and enterprise sites. It will also support both university and industrial interests.
Willetts described support from such centers of excellence as “the missing link” between SMBs and primes in this area of technology. “They will be hubs of technical expertise and training, providing cutting-edge facilities and opportunities for business networking.”
In addition, the Technology Strategy Board or TSB is investing up to $1.5M in feasibility studies to accelerate the development of novel robotics and autonomous systems. A competition for this funding opens in February.
Global race, indeed
The funding is aimed at feasibility studies to accelerate the development of RAS concepts where robots interact with each other and with humans. They use sensors to learn from their environment, adapting their behavior and making choices based on their stored knowledge and experiences.
“We are in a global race to develop new innovations,” Willetts said, “and this competition will give researchers the freedom to explore early-stage ideas which can be demonstrated to potential investors and turned into commercially successful products.”
The TSB funding is for projects that develop early-stage and novel concepts to address identifiable challenges and to mitigate risks. All projects must be collaborative and led by an SMB. They will last up to 12 months and each grant will be up to $200K although larger projects will also be considered.