Robotics and AI Research for U.K. Space Industry Receives Fresh Funding

New funding for the U.K. space industry will benefit the ExoMars 2020 mission. Credit: ESA

February 12, 2018      

This past November, the British government pledged a total of £84 million ($116 million U.S.) in support for research into artificial intelligence, robotics, and smart energy. Among other things, the cash boost will fund four new robotic technology research hubs in the nuclear energy, offshore wind, and U.K. space industry.

One interesting project is the FAIR-SPACE Hub, which aims go beyond the state of the art in robotic sensing and perception, mobility and manipulation, onboard and on-ground autonomous capabilities, and human-robot interaction. The intent is to enable space robots to perform complex tasks on long-duration missions with minimal dependence on ground crew.

“Advances in robotics and autonomous systems are “changing the way space is explored in ever more fundamental ways,” said Prof. Yang Gao, director at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council/U.K.Space Agency National Hub on Future AI & Robotics for Space (FAIR-SPACE).

Where human missions are concerned, Gao explains that robots act as proxy explorers by deploying infrastructure for human arrival, assisting human crews during in-space operations, and managing assets left behind.

“As humans extend their reach into space, they will increasingly rely on robots enabled by AI to handle many support functions and repetitive tasks, allowing crews to apply themselves to problems that call for human cognition and judgment,” she said. “Where scientific exploration is concerned, robotic spacecraft will continue to go out into Earth orbit and the far reaches of deep space, venturing to remote and hostile worlds and returning valuable samples and data for scientific analysis.”

This has implications for how robots are produced and used, not only in space, but also for industrial automation, energy exploration and production, and other areas.

U.K. space industry offers business opportunity

In Gao’s view, both the robotics/AI and space sectors offer “significant market opportunities, which the U.K. is well placed to capture.” For example, she noted that the U.K. space industry generated £13.7 billion ($18.93 billion) of income in 2014/2015, or 6.5% of the global market. The government has a target to grow U.K. market share to 10%. The sector also supported 38,500 jobs and demonstrated worker productivity 2.7 times greater than the national average.

Looking more widely, £250 billion ($345 billion) of GDP is related to satellite-supported services, and the space industry is a leading developer of robotics and AI (RAI) technologies.

For example, the U.K. is the largest contributor to the ESA ExoMars2020 rover mission. The industry is also R&D-intensive, with 8.1% of direct GVA (gross value added) invested in R&D — six times the national average. For Gao, this R&D intensity “demonstrates the importance of developing enabling technologies, but also the capacity of U.K. industry to take up the technologies.”

U.K. space industry receives funding

“It is, therefore, crucial for the U.K. space industry to leverage expertise from its research community of universities to sustain and strengthen its leadership,” Gao explained. “In addition, space robotics and AI have excellent potential for spin along activities allowing the ‘spinning in’ of terrestrial technologies from other sectors as well as then spinning out the resulting technology advances.”

“The markets associated with these potential sectors (such as nuclear, off-shore, mining, healthcare, and agriculture) are expected to undergo huge growth in the coming years,” she added. “The adoption and insertion of RAI-based products and services into these applications is expected to deliver economic benefits of at least $1.9 trillion by 2025.”

Offshore safety

Another project backed by the recent round of funding is the ORCA Hub (Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets), which aims to use robotics and AI to revolutionize asset integrity management in the offshore energy sector to enable cheaper, safer, and more efficient working practices.

According to David Lane, professor of autonomous systems engineering at Heriot-Watt University and director at the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, the Hub will research, integrate, validate, and deploy remote robotic solutions that can “operate with existing and future offshore energy assets and sensors.”

He said these systems will be “interacting safely in autonomous or semi-autonomous modes in complex and cluttered environments, cooperating with remote operators, and be able to self-certify themselves and assets to satisfy regulators.”

By linking fundamental and applied research with use cases and user requirements — and iteratively developing both in a “spiral of joint activity” within one organization — Lane said the ORCA Hub possesses the “best possible chance of upgrading the supply chain to gain competitive economic benefit.”

“Similar ‘smart procurement’ approaches have previously delivered very successful outcomes,” he said. “Using successive capability challenges as the pivot between research output and market need, along with critical mass, are the key ingredients for success, and can nucleate other technologies around them.”