November 08, 2016      

Joanne Pransky, associate editor of Industrial Robot, recently chatted with Rob Buckingham, director at the UK Atomic Energy Authority and innovator of robotics for confined and hazardous environments.

Buckingham obtained his Bachelor of Science and Master of Engineering degrees at Brunel University, followed by a Ph.D. in robotics from the University of Bristol. In 1997, he co-founded OC Robotics, which designs snake-arm robots.

In 2014, Buckingham returned to the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) at Culham, where he had worked as a student. He is head of the Remote Applications in Challenging Environments (RACE) Centre, which is investigating remote inspection, maintenance, and decommissioning of energy facilities.

As co-chair of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) Special Interest Group steering group, Buckingham helped prepare the British government’s UK RAS strategy.

This interview is available free to Robotics Business Review readers until Nov. 30, 2016. Here’s a preview:

Pransky: What led you to the field of robotics?

Buckingham: I always loved engineering. I chose Brunel University in London because it provided a special course, which combined mechanical, electrical, and production engineering. I focused on math and control theory in the final years.

My undergraduate degree project was on collision avoidance of robots, and thus my engagement in robotics started early on.

I was also very lucky to have been sponsored all the way through university by the UK Atomic Energy Authority in a “sandwich” course in which I spent six months studying at university and the other six months each year working at UKAEA around the U.K. and Europe.

I spent quite a bit of time within the JET [Joint European Torus] remote handling group which I now run, so things have gone full circle, but it was there that I saw some amazing robotics. That was really what inspired me right from the age of 18, 19.

The JET snake arm robot.

The Joint European Torus planar snake manipulator within the JET vacuum vessel. Source: UKAEA

Pransky: Where did the idea of snake-arm robots for confined spaces come from?

Buckingham: The original motivation traces all the way back to the remote handling systems at the Joint European Torus that the UKAEA still operates. The JET manipulators are all planar. At the end of my Ph.D., which was in robot kinematics, I started exploring the maths of hyper-redundant mechanisms.

On one of the student projects I ran, I was lucky enough to meet Andy Graham, who won all the engineering project prizes. We started thinking about whether we could design and control these robots.

Later, we wondered: How could you design mechanisms that would work in three dimensions? How would you solve the math? Andy and I, after a number of years of working on independent projects, decided to focus on snakes and set up OC Robotics.

Pransky: OC Robotics is a small company. Do you think snake robotics could have been developed by a larger organization, or do you think that a hard-working small company is the most effective and cost-efficient way to undertake such projects?

Buckingham: I think it could only have happened in a startup primarily because you have to be personally invested to do truly innovative things. In a startup company, the buck stops with you.

From the time when Andy and I were working originally in my attic, then the garage before moving on, there was a sense of teamwork that is essential to get you over the difficult things.

If you were an employee of a large company, I think you would have to be continually convincing your management to carry on because the path is rarely straightforward. Of course, big companies are tremendously innovative, and they mostly achieve this by creating small teams and giving them the air to breathe.

Still there’s something special about a startup. There’s a buzz.

Pransky: How did OC receive funding?

Buckingham: OC has only had one round of funding thus far, in 2001 from a Dragons’ Den-type pitch to a bunch of investors. Since then, it’s been self-financing.

Pransky: If you were starting again today, would you try for crowdfunding?

Buckingham: Investment goes hand in hand with control. So one question is: As founders, are you able to actually direct and lead the company in a certain direction? I have no experience with crowdfunding. OC investors have been very supportive.

Pransky: Can you tell us a bit about UKAEA’s RACE and your role?

Buckingham: UKAEA received about £10 million [$12.4 million] to invest in a new building and expose the existing expertise in the JET remote handling group to other sectors. The team of 80 has now moved into the building, which was opened by Science Minister Jo Johnson in May 2016.

Fusion is one of those humanity-changing ideas. All positive visions of future humanity rely on a plentiful supply of electricity. To generate electricity from fusion, you have to get the physics right, and you also need the engineering to get commercial plant availability.

You’re trying to get hydrogen to fuse, which happens naturally in the Sun and on Earth, at temperatures of 200 million degrees Kelvin. Fusion creates highly energetic neutrons, which carry the energy that you want to convert into electricity. These and gamma radiation mean that everything close to the reactor has to be operated and maintained remotely.

Fusion won’t deliver electricity without robotics and automation. It’s actually one of the most challenging robotics problems to solve — perhaps that’s part of the appeal.

UKAEA's Culham Centre for Fusion Energy

The world’s largest and most powerful operating tokamak is located at UKAEA’s Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. Source: UKAEA

Previously, the UKAEA hasn’t been well-connected with wider robotics communities because the fusion community has been somewhat self-contained. I’d like to put RACE at the heart of global robotics initiatives.

Trying to implement robotics in really hostile environments, be it a fusion reactor, in space, down a mine, or in an autonomous vehicle on the road, is very demanding. We know there are lots of common challenges. We need to learn together to minimize costs and reduce time to market.

It would be good to set up conferences and exchanges between some of the international labs. My hope is that I can create the space for some bright young people to do some really cool stuff.

Another thing, which is really important, is that you have to convince the investors, including politicians, that the investment is actually worth it. People underestimate the time it takes to develop robust reliable hardware.

Pransky: Will Brexit affect RACE at all, and what are your general comments on Brexit for the European academic/research communities?

Buckingham: Ah, the Brexit question. The problems that face us all are increasingly global in nature. Someone said recently, “Brexit means Brexit, and now we have to work out what Brexit means.”

My sense is that we will do OK, not least because we have no option! People talk about divorce, but I think this is more like leaving home. I have kids doing just that — it’s a very exciting time for them, still just as full of promise as it has always been.

What we really need is a few Isambard Kingdom Brunels — brave long-term investors — and some seriously good politicians and civil servants. We need visionaries, and we need leaders. The U.K. will do OK.

More on British Robotics:

Pransky: What do you think Ph.D. and Masters of Engineering students should be doing while in school, to prepare them best for the commercial side of robotics?

Buckingham: I would encourage anybody who’s doing a Ph.D. to think about whether they can actually start their own business. It’s never too early to try, and I really believe that you are better off learning by doing rather than trying to learn it from books. I would love to see some change to Ph.D.s whereby there’s a possibility, for instance, of a fourth year which is specifically to transition ideas into a product or service.

Imagine if we had Ph.D. candidates who have done some great stuff able to say, “OK, I’d like to have a go. Let’s see if this works in the marketplace.”

Click here to read the entire interview.

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