April 07, 2015      

The influential U.K. innovation agency Innovate UK has published a new report that concludes that a “clear opportunity exists to create a strong robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) market within the U.K.”

A key finding of The UK Landscape for Robotics and Autonomous Systems 2015 is that robotics is likely to have a “deep and significant” effect on nearly all British market sectors within the next decade. Early signs of this are visible in manufacturing, agriculture, transport, logistics, energy supply, and healthcare, where RAS applications are already deployed in niche applications, according to the report.

In the authors’ view, embracing the opportunities presented by a “wide-open market” will call for further investment in five areas — coordination, assets, challenges, clusters, and skills — to further build the U.K.’s RAS capability.

In addition, the report concludes that the full benefits will only be achieved by opening up the regulatory environment, lowering barriers to market entry for small companies, and building a “matching skills base” focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects.

Innovation tradition

The report is based on the output of a series of workshops held over 18 months by the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Special Interest Group (RAS-SIG) that were intended to explore the impact of robotics and automation on the U.K. The findings are likely to be of strong interest to stakeholders across the U.K., and they have already been warmly welcomed by the British government.

U.K. robotics spending

U.K. automation investments

The government released a statement recognizing the need to build on existing local and national strategic investment to support robotics technology and raise the international profile of the country’s “world-class position in robotics.” It also released a letter outlining how the U.K.’s RAS sector has already benefited from high levels of private-sector and government investment, estimated recently at some $488.8 million (£327.5 million).

Getting to market

Clive Loughlin, editor-in-chief of Industrial Robot, said the report is a useful document that he hopes will attract financial and political interest in the technology and its potential applications. Although all developed economies have the same opportunity to develop their RAS sectors, many are struggling financially, he said, so the U.K. is “probably in a better position than most.”

“The U.K. does have an established tradition of innovation, but being first can be expensive and lead to the innovators being overtaken by others who are in the rush to be second,” Loughlin said. “There are lots of opportunities for RAS that can be achieved with existing technologies. Innovation is great, but it’s implementation that makes something useful.”

For Loughlin, the biggest danger facing the U.K. in pursuing RAS applications lies in “trying to run before it can walk.” He warned that less risky applications could be overlooked in the enthusiasm to do something “really impressive.”

“If simpler applications are tackled first, then the technological and financial demands will be reduced by a factor of 10 or more,” Loughlin said. “Success in these areas will provide a sound foundation for more advanced projects in the future. We should do the easy applications first.”

In addition, unlike the U.S. and Japan, the U.K. has been slower at translating research into commercial products. With the global market growing to $46 billion to 2020, the government hopes to stimulate development, despite fears of job displacement.

Looking ahead, Loughlin also warned the U.K. robotics sector against letting its enthusiasm for the technology “override more fundamental considerations” and stressed that the key to success will be to encourage end users become stakeholders in the robotics development process.

“It is a matter of getting the right balance between technology push and technology pull,” Loughlin added. “I would like to see more involvement by end users in defining market needs.”