March 20, 2014      

After years of lingering in the shadows

Despite the pioneering work of visionaries such as Alan Turing and William Grey Walter, Britain has long lagged behind many other nations in robot development and application.

While major U.S and Japanese manufacturers began using robots as long ago as the 1960s, most British firms have continued to rely on traditional production methods.

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A key issue hampering robot adoption is the number of small businesses in the U.K. manufacturing sector. Approximately nine out of ten British manufacturers employ fewer than 50 people, according to figures from Manchester University?s Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change.

Since most robots sold in the U.K. cost somewhere between £30,000 and £50,000 ($50,000 and $80,000), many smaller companies simply can’t afford the technology.

Still, some hope for long-term growth can be found in the fact that the number of new robotic installations in the U.K. doubled in 2012 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) to 2,477, according to British Automation and Robot Association (BARA) data. Yet four out of five adopters were businesses related to the automotive industry.

In most other manufacturing sectors robotics installations have plateaued in recent years. In food, Britain’s largest manufacturing sector in terms of workforce size, U.K. companies are more reluctant to adopt robotics systems than many of their European counterparts.

According to International Federation of Robotics (IFR) statistics, 100 robotics systems were adopted by U.K. food companies in 2011, compared to France?s 270, Spain?s 308, Germany?s 442, and Italy?s 658.

Cause for optimism

Rob Buckingham, director of OC Robotics in Bristol, feels that British robotics may be on the brink of a revival. “The U.K. government and a number of companies have invested a lot into robotics over the years,” he observes. Buckingham notes that there is broad agreement across a number of different business sectors that fresh technologies are almost ready. “More importantly, there is agreement that robotics and autonomous systems will affect many parts of U.K. society and can be part of addressing future challenges related to transport, independent living, and nuclear decommissioning.”

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The key to generating new robotics companies that create jobs, products, and services, is linking new technology with known needs, Buckingham says. “This is the well known push-pull model of delivering innovation,” he explains. “In the U.K. there is a growing recognition that the challenge is converting ideas into products.”

Government support has so far come in the form of a handful of small initiatives. Early last year, for instance, David Willetts, minister of state for universities and science, pledged to invest £35 million ($58.2 million) in robotics “centres of excellence” to join together universities and industry.

Government agencies are also available to lend a hand to promising robotics ventures. “The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) are long term supporters of robotics,” Buckingham says. “In the E.U. there is also a well developed strategy, which U.K. experts have had a major part in writing, with significant funding under Horizon 2020 [an EU framework program for research and innovation].”

The entire U.K. robotics industry benefits from E.U. and U.K. support, says Rich Walker, managing director of Shadow Robot, a London company that designs and manufactures state-of-the-art anthropomorphic robot hands and related systems. “We also have a healthy tax credit for company R&D, which is even more favorable for SMEs,” Walker says. “In addition, the TSB manages a number of business development and support funding schemes.”

A couple of years ago, Walker notes, the TSB created a Robotics and Autonomous Systems special interest group “that has been instrumental in getting U.K. robotics funding lined up in the same direction.” (Walker is a member of the group’s steering committee.)

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OC, which manufactures snake-arm robots that can slither into confined spaces, is itself a recipient of government funding. “We lead a collaboration called LaserSnake, which is a £7.7million ($12.8 million) program aimed at developing tools for nuclear decommissioning,” Buckingham says. “We are also part of a big E.U.-funded project looking at new remote inspection techniques.”

Robust research base

British robotics supporters also find cause for optimism in the nation’s deep base of academic robotics research facilities, most of which are working to develop innovative technologies that are suitable for commercialization.

London’s King’s College, for example, is home to the Centre for Robotics Research. The Centre’s research activities deal with a broad range of topics, including robotics and automation; robotic surgery and rehabilitation technologies; robotic handling and manipulation systems; and neural, cognitive, and biomimetic systems.

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The facility’s projects are funded by the U.K. Research Councils, including the EPSRC. Funding also comes from the E.U. and companies such as Ford Motor Company Ltd., RU Robotics, Shadow Robotics, Unilever Research Ltd, Yasakawa Electric Co. (Japan), Field Packaging Group, Desoutter Ltd., Seco Aluminium Ltd., Boal BV (Holland), and Tele-Spec Ltd.

Another major U.K. academic research center is the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL). Collaboration between the University of Bristol and the University of West England, BRL carries out cutting edge research programs focused on the development of autonomous robot systems.

The lab’s stated vision is to “transform robotics by pioneering advances in autonomous robot systems” by developing the mechanisms required to “create robotic systems that can behave intelligently without human supervision.”

BRL is home to a community of over 100 academics and industry practitioners specialized in service robotics, intelligent autonomous systems, and bio-engineering. BRL?s state-of-the-art laboratory covers an area of over 3,000 square meters and houses specialist workshops and wet labs, as well as two “flying arenas” with multiple 3D motion capture systems.

Many British academic research organizations are focusing on innovations in specific robotics subsets. The Robot Vision Group at Imperial College London, for example, conducts research on real-time computer vision techniques applicable to robotics and other demanding real-world, real-time applications.

The group focuses on simultaneous localization, and mapping (SLAM) challenges, such as how can a camera flying through a 3-D world estimate its location robustly, accurately, and in real-time, and how far can it go in mapping or modeling the scene around it as it does so? The group’s researchers are particularly interested in real-time solutions where continuous high frame-rate operation permits true prediction, active processing, and interaction.

Other British robotics research and education hubs include the Robotics Research Group at the University of Oxford, the Centre for Automation and Robotics Research at Sheffield Hallam University, and the Robotics and Intelligent Systems Lab at Plymouth University, among many others.

“We have had a lot of universities developing robotics for a long time,” Walker says, noting that many British youths are eager and well prepared to enter the field. “We have a generation that grew up on home computers for whom nothing is impossible,” he says. “And we have a long tradition of hobbyists and model engineers prototyping and playing with things.”

Buckingham firmly believes that funds spent on research and training represent a solid investment in Britain’s future. “Investing relatively small amounts in robotics resources for schools seems like a no brainer,” he says. On the other hand, Buckingham is concerned about the shrinking number of young people studying math, science, and technology subjects. “In the future we will either be a country that buys technology or sells technology,” he says. “The latter enables the former.”

Setting a new course

Buckingham feels that there is now a growing awareness, in government and elsewhere, of the need to rebalance the economy, supporting and rewarding manufacturers to the same degree as service-oriented companies. “Yet bringing industrial services up to the level of financial services will take time and will take an investment in skills and innovation,” he says.

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To become a major global player, the British robotics industry must be prepared to address markets beyond the U.K. and E.U. “Robotics is a competitive global market, and only the best ideas?technical and commercial?will succeed,” Buckingham says. “The prize is not only to solve challenges in the U.K., but also to establish a global reputation and exports.”

It’s natural, Buckingham says, that continued support from both government agencies and private investors should be based on the robotics industry’s tangible progress and not only its vision.

He says that the industry must reach a consensus on its future course. “The challenge is one of finding agreement and aligning resources, be they in government R&D pockets; government procurement; industrial companies large and small; national laboratories; universities; and financial investors,” he says.

Buckingham says that Britain will need a strong robotics industry to provide direction in how the nation will be shaped in the years ahead. “Taking just one example, autonomous cars are coming: not tomorrow, but soon,” he says. “The impact of such a change will have ripples that will affect how we live, where we live, design of infrastructure, and our future cities.”

For his part, Walker is excited about the future of the British robotics industry. “This is a really exciting time to be doing robotics,” he says. “Core technologies, like robot hands, are now at the point where we can start deploying robots in the real world outside of traditional manufacturing markets.”