May 16, 2016      

Last November, the British Office Taipei invited a small team of U.K.-based robotics experts to tour the country with the aim of better understanding its robotics sector, exploiting strong potential synergies and exploring ways of bridging the gap the between Taiwanese and U.K. robotics.

The visit, which followed a successful U.K. Trade and Investment (UKTI) mission to Japan, entailed trips to some of Taiwan’s leading robotics companies and research centers, including the International Center of Excellence in Intelligent Robotics and Automation Research (NTU-iCeiRA), the Taiwanese Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), and the Taiwan Automation Intelligence and Robotics Association.

The British delegation also visited NEXCOM International Co., Taiwan Shin Kong Security Co., the Intelligent System Control Integration (ISCI) Laboratory, and New Kinpo Group.

“We took with us a new companion robot that we jointly designed, called Miro, that we are launching to the developer community at the IEEE Conference on Robotics and Automation next month in Stockholm,” said Tony Prescott, a professor at the University of Sheffield and director of Sheffield Centre for Robotics.

Prof. Tony Prescott of Sheffield Robotics

Sheffield Robotics’ Tony Prescott and a prototype companion robot.

He and industrial designer Sebastian Conran were visiting representatives of U.K. Robotics and Autonomous Systems (UK-RAS) Network, which was formed by the Engineering and Physicial Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Conran was also representing his companies, Sebastian Conran Associates and UK Robotics Ltd.

Assistive robotics application

Since the visit, Prescott confirmed that new partnerships have been established among Sheffield Robotics, Consequential Robotics Ltd., the ITRI, and Taiwanese start-up Mechavision — leading to an application to the EU Horizon 2020 program for funding.

According to Prescott, there are a number of clear advantages to strengthening the partnerships between the two nations’ robotics sectors. For instance, he said both the U.K. and Taiwan are island economies with strong academic and research sectors in robotics.

Prescott also pointed out that both countries have faced the jobs challenge of offshore outsourcing in response to rising labor costs. Both the U.K. and Taiwan are now looking to develop new business models such as design-led businesses and hope to repatriate manufacturing through the use of advanced automation.

“I was struck by the similarity of the approach to developing academic and industrial partners demonstrated by the ITRI and U.K. Catapults such as the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre [AMRC] based near Sheffield,” he said. “I believe that there are strong synergies to be found both in the areas of advanced manufacturing and in assistive robotics systems, where both Taiwan and the U.K. have considerable R&D activity,” Prescott added.

Gaps still to be bridged for Taiwan-U.K. robotics

Although he was confident about the potential of future collaboration, Prescott acknowledged that a number of challenges remain. Not least is the “lack of knowledge about reciprocal activities in the sector” — something he said the trade mission “began to address.”

“Further visits, and a return visit from Taiwanese business and academic leaders to the U.K. could help to overcome this,” Prescott said. “Some pump-priming funding from the two governments to help establish new collaborations would also help to overcome the initial challenges relating to the cost of travel between U.K. and Taiwan.”

Looking ahead, Prescott revealed that the team hopes to develop academic research partnerships, for instance, with Prof. Ren Luo at the National Taiwan University, or with Prof. Kai-Tai Song at the National Chiao Tung University.

“I would like to see some ties developed between ITRI and the U.K. advanced manufacturing catapult. We hosted a visit from two ITRI researchers to AMRC in March of this year,” he added.

“Finally, I think there is the potential to team up to develop next-generation assistive and home robots, for instance, by combining design and AI expertise in the U.K. with electronics and mechanical design expertise in Taiwan,” Prescott said.