In advance of RoboBusiness Europe (April 11-12, Genoa, Italy), one of the conference’s keynote speakers, Libor Kral, head of Robotics unit in DG CONNECT (the highest-level robotics unit in the European Commission) took some time out to talk with Robotics Business Review.
In an interview that ranges across many of the topics that will feature in his RoboBusiness Europe keynote, Kral shared his insights regarding some of the challenges facing commercial robotics and how the European Commission plans to provide the sector with a boost.
Interview conducted by Emmet Cole, European Robotics Editor for Robotics Business Review
RBR: As FP7 draws to a close and with Horizon 2020 about to get underway, how has the E.U.’s EUR400M ($527M) investment in FP7 improved the lot of robotics researchers and robotics companies in Europe and what new developments can we expect to see as a result of Horizon 2020?
LK: Actually, the total figure of EU spending in FP7 research in robotics and cognitive systems is even higher and approaches EUR600M ($774M) which probably makes our funding program the world’s largest civilian R&D program in the field.
We have funded the whole spectrum of projects from foundational research to technology R&D and integration of robotics into specific applications. Our funded research projects created substantial addition to the body of knowledge ? there are hundreds if not thousands of publications and conference papers.
Many of the European robotics manufacturers participate in EU research and we have managed to bring academia and industries together. Another important aspect is the networking ? there are now well-functioning networks of European robotics researchers which started with our funding, there is an established European Technology Platform with mainly industrial participants.
This means that in the European robotics community, we already have a well-established forum for exchange between industry and academia. Now, we want to go further. Horizon 2020 offers a new opportunity to strengthen our technology base and to translate academic research more quickly into new products and services. We want to take this next step together with key stakeholders. To this end, we want to establish a Public-Private Partnership in Robotics. This initiative will improve collaboration between stakeholders, create stronger industry-academia ties and also get those much more involved in defining research priorities.
RBR: Exciting innovations in the world of robotics are reported on a weekly –if not daily– basis and yet few of these innovations seem to translate into commercial successes. What are the reasons for this and how will Horizon 2020 support the transition from research project to successful commercial enterprise?
LK: First of all, robots are still a very complex technology. Just because something works in a lab does not necessarily mean that it will also work in our everyday world. This means that more research is needed, in particular to make robots more robust and versatile.
At the same time, academia is often not aware of the real-world problems of industry and end-users in general. This results then in solutions that no one asked for. We want to further close the gap between academia and industry. Concretely, we will base our future funding priorities on a research roadmap that is developed jointly by industrial and academic stakeholders. In doing so, we want to stimulate research that is relevant for companies and the commercial sector in general.
RBR: From the ad hoc, anecdotal evidence of robotics entrepreneurs, there is no “standard” way to set up a robotics company. Some advocate the lean start-up methodology for example, while others rely heavily on government support. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the target markets tend to be very specialized and diverse.
Given the relative newness of robotics technology it’s understandable that business best practices are yet to emerge, but what will Horizon 2020 do to accelerate this learning curve for researchers and SMEs hoping to bring their innovations to market?
LK: In Horizon 2020, we hope to bring researchers, industrialists and end-users much closer together so that they can benefit from each other’s experience. For example, pre-commercial procurement will enable companies to test and showcase almost mature products with public procurers.
We will also use dedicated instruments to enable technology transfer between academia and industry. In FP7, we already successfully experimented with such an approach in the ECHORD project.
Finally, we want to make access to finance easier. During the upcoming European Robotics Forum (19th ? 21st March, Lyon), for example, we will organize an Investment Forum where promising start-ups can pitch their ideas and business plans to potential investors. Later this spring, I will be chairing the Venture Capital session at RoboBusiness Europe (Genoa, April 11-12, 2013).
RBR: Policymakers and legislators have an important role to play in developing a supportive legal and regulatory environment for the development of commercial robotics. How will Horizon 2020 (and projects like RoboLaw) engage policymakers and legislators on these topics and what message are you hoping to get across to political leaders and regulators?
LK: The main message should be that advanced robots and autonomous systems indeed pose difficult legal questions to regulators. Who pays when an autonomous system causes damage? How will data protection laws be applied to systems that constantly gather information about and communicate with their environment? Recognizing the importance of these problems is a first step to address them.
And we should not be mistaken: Other countries are pushing ahead. The US State of Nevada, for example, has already proper legislation in place to allow autonomous vehicles on its streets. Contrary to what many people think, many businesses actually need a safe regulatory environment. In this particular context, we feel that proper legislation will enable businesses and not hamper them.
RBR: In what ways do you expect the European market for consumer and commercial robotics to change between now and 2020? And what role would you like to see Horizon 2020 play in that process?
LK: We expect to see a strong growth in all sectors of robotics. While consumer robotics is a promising market, we actually registered the highest growth of all segments last year in industrial robotics. And given that the Commission and many European countries aims to re-industrialize Europe, industrial robotics, which plays a key role in factory automation, will continue to grow strongly.
Having said that, Europe is also strong in consumer robotics. The biggest manufacturer of robotic lawn mowers is European, for example, and we will see strong growth in this segment, too.
Professional service robotics is another high growth area where Europe is particularly strong. Think of milking robots, for example. This is a segment which is dominated by European players at the moment, and we intend to strengthen their competitiveness further. Milk consumption is growing around the world, and milking robots lead to higher yields and a higher quality of life for farmers.
Our main tool to deliver research in H2020 will be the above-mentioned Public-Private Partnership in Robotics. In this partnership, we want to gather all relevant stakeholders ? academics, end-users, industrialists from all industries ranging from traditional industrial robotics to consumer robotics and professional service robotics ? and define our research priorities together. We want to fund research that matters to these stakeholders and that has a real impact on their competitiveness.
RBR: How much of the EUR80bn Horizon 2020 budget is dedicated to robotics research? And do you think it is enough to give Europe a real competitive edge in the global race for commercial robotics dominance?
LK: The budget discussion is not over yet. The amount of EUR80B ($107B) you mention was in the Commission proposal, but the overall budget of Horizon 2020 will be established as a result of difficult and ongoing negotiations between the European Commission, European Council and European Parliament. Robotics is definitely one of the priorities and I believe that we will be able to at least maintain the level of funding this area was receiving in FP7.
Waiver : The views expressed in this interview are the sole responsibility of the individuals involved and in no way represent the views of the European Commission and its services.
About Libor Kral
Dr. Libor Kral is the Head of Robotics unit in DG CONNECT, the highest-level robotics unit in the European Commission. From July 2008 to June 2012, Kral led DG INFSO’s Cognitive Systems, Interaction, Robotics unit and from June 2007 to June 2008 he headed DG INFSO’s Interaction & Interfaces unit.
Prior to working with the European Commission, Kral was Quality Manager in the TietoEnator A.S.-Czech Software Center from 2005-2007 and also a R&D manager and project manager in the IT industry. Kral graduated from the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, having specialized in theoretical cybernetics, mathematical information science and systems theory.
About RoboBusiness Europe
RoboBusiness Europe, Europe’s premier B2B robotics event, takes place in Genoa, from April 11-12, 2013. Built on the successful ?Conference & Expo? model developed for the U.S.-based RoboBusiness Leadership Summit (now in its 8th year), RoboBusiness Europe is designed to help robotics companies connect with potential clients and venture capitalists. Following keynotes from leading figures in the world of robotics, specialist sessions throughout April 11-12 will cover topics as diverse as business development and venture capital financing; medical and industrial robotics; and safety, security, emergency response and rescue robots.
RoboBusiness Europe offers unique networking opportunities for venture capitalists, researchers, end-users and robotics companies. If you’re a researcher looking to commercialize your work, a venture capitalist searching for ?the next big thing,? an end-user hoping to find a robotic solution, or a robotics company that wants to showcase your product, RoboBusiness Europe is the only place to be from April 11-12, 2013.