Despite ongoing Brexit uncertainty, investments abound in British robotics

February 22, 2018      

Despite ongoing uncertainty around the so-called Brexit, the British robotics industry is pushing forward with a variety of research programs and the development of a number of new robots. On the financial side, investments from both public and private sources have been critical to the success of these initiatives. Here’s a look at some of the most noteworthy recent investments in British robotics.

Seed fund for British robotics startups

Positive changes are on the horizon for British robotics entrepreneurs following the launch of the British Robotics Seed Fund — the first investment fund specializing in U.K.-based robotics startups. The fund, created by High Growth Robotics Ltd. (also known as BritBots) in collaboration with Sapphire Capital Partners, is open to “professional or sophisticated investors with a minimum of £10,000 [$13,000 U.S.] to invest” and who are looking to “enhance their investment portfolio with high-growth robotics businesses.”

BritBots founder Dominic Keen has already outlined how prospective investors can use the innovative Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS) “carry-back” facility to offset income-tax liabilities in the 2016/17 tax year by bringing a “mixed-basket” of some of the most promising British robotics stocks into their portfolio. He also indicated that the fund will work closely with the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL), the largest robotics lab in Europe, to nurture early-stage start-ups.

Amid warnings about the paucity of public-sector support for British robotics, the U.K. government has also announced plans to invest £17.3 million ($24.11 million) into university research on artificial intelligence. It also plans to launch a wide-ranging review in a bid to position the country as a global leader in AI.

£10.8 million ($15.05 million) of this investment has already been committed to several major robotics research projects, including an Imperial College London initiative that seeks to make “major advances” in surgical micro-robotics. It is also supporting a University of Manchester project to create autonomous technologies for use in hazardous environments like nuclear facilities.

Icon Plastics recently invested in two robotic manufacturing machines. Photo: Keith Taylor/Icon Plastics

The U.K. Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has also set aside £6.5 million ($9.06 million) for capital investment to strengthen and consolidate its existing investments in a distributed network of capital equipment. The agency said it wants to enable British robotics and AI researchers to speed up the process of commercializing the results of basic research and fostering cross-sector growth.

Manufacturing and high-tech investment

There are also concrete signs of continued robotics investment across the U.K. manufacturing, industrial, and construction sectors. For instance, Tees Valley-based precision plastic injection molding and assembly company Icon Plastics has injected some £200,000 into the acquisition of two cutting-edge Negribossi Canbio ST machines. They combine robotics-based technology and computer design to create plastic components destined for the medical, construction, defense, and automotive sectors.

Also in the Northeast of England, Gateshead-based specialist diamond drilling, cutting and sawing contractor Demon Drillers has invested £120,000 ($167,000) in a new Husqvarna DXR 270 robotic demolition machine, specially designed for use in confined spaces.

Investments into British robotics include development of robotics to tend to offshore wind farms

Researchers are developing robots to perform remote inspection of offshore wind farms. Photo: Heriot Watt

Efforts to create the next generation of highly efficient 5G wireless connectivity technologies have also received a leg up following the news of an international partnership among 5G engineers at the Universities of Bristol and Lund, National Instruments (NI), and BT (formerly British Telecom). The research team has already carried out indoor and outdoor field trials of a massive MIMO (multiple-input and multiple-output) system at the BT Labs facility in Suffolk.

Meanwhile, vacuum cleaner manufacturer Dyson — long viewed as a British success story — looks set to shake up the U.K. robotics skills landscape as it unveiled plans to establish a sprawling research campus in the Cotswolds to push forward its ongoing R&D efforts in the field of robotics, batteries, vision systems, and AI.

Marine and airborne robotics

Around the coast, the U.K. offshore and marine robotics sector also remains very buoyant. In early February, a British research team announced that it had secured a £4 million ($5.57 million) grant to develop remote inspection and repair technologies using robotics and autonomous systems.

The project consortium includes internationally recognized experts at Manchester, Warwick, Heriot-Watt, Cranfield and Durham universities. It will use the funds to deliver a human-robotics hybrid solution to assist with the operation and maintenance of offshore wind farms, specifically for the inspection of subsea power cables.

“Prognostics and enhanced remote inspection and repair capabilities will be critical to affordable and secure energy in the future energy system,” said David Flynn, associate professor and director of the Smart Systems Group at Heriot-Watt University.

The British drone sector is also starting to soar, with growing signs that U.K. firms are expanding into a wide variety of new markets, including property and construction, offshore energy, military, land surveying and mapping, agriculture and video filming.