June 22, 2016      

The U.K. this month is launching its first-ever Robotics Week — an initiative that seeks to stimulate interest in future robotics by the general public and the media. It will take the form of a series of events and seminars held across the country focusing on a variety of themes, including digital manufacturing, intelligent mobility, and agricultural technology.

Another key aim of the initiative is to engage young people in robotics, said Christos Bergeles, lecturer in the Department of Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering at University College London and a member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Robotics and Mechatronics Technical and Professional Network (TPN). U.K. Robotics Week runs from June 25 to July 1.

“Robotics and autonomous systems are really exciting technologies and have been identified as key to future U.K. growth, so it is vital that we showcase the latest innovations and get young people thinking and talking about robotics,” he said.

‘Getting the message out’

Bergeles believes that initiatives like U.K. Robotics Week are an effective way of promoting growth and awareness in the British robotics sector. This is particularly urgent because robotics is “evolving all the time and will eventually become a big part of our everyday lives,” he said.

“Even now, we are seeing big developments in the sector, from advanced manufacturing to intelligent agriculture and healthcare,” Bergeles said. “Initiatives like U.K. Robotics Week are therefore crucial in promoting growth and awareness of these new technologies, as well as an opportunity to engage young people, to solidify national and international collaborations, and to demonstrate the unique strengths of UK robotics and automation to the world.”

U.K. Robotics Week

U.K. Robotics Week is a chance to stimulate interest in engineering careers.

Stephen Prior, reader in unmanned aerial systems (UAS), aeronautics, astronautics, and computational engineering at Southampton University, agreed that the national even should be a useful exercise. However, he added, its long-term success depends on “getting the message out and getting people involved.”

Southampton University will be competing in the annual IMechE UAS Challenge on July 5 and 6 with a multi-rotor drone designed to deliver 2 kg (4.4 lb.) of humanitarian aid to a simulated disaster zone.

In the U.S., National Robotics Week in April also tried to encourage youthful interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) through demonstrations, competitions, and local events in multiple states. iRobot Corp. was among the week’s sponsors.

A shortage of qualified engineers in the U.K. and elsewhere is an opportunity to provide new careers and dispel myths about automation stealing all jobs.

Interdisciplinary thinking

Although he is confident about the ongoing prospects for the U.K. robotics and automation sector, Prior warned that it still faces several technological, operational, and financial challenges. The include the need to make systems affordable and to nurture artificial intelligence.

Prior also noted that sensor capabilities must improve. In addition, legislation must specify how “to allow robotic systems to interact with people and urban infrastructure,” he said.

“These challenges will be overcome by targeted funding and bringing smart people from different disciplines together to solve real-world problems,” Prior said.

Bergeles agreed that robotics innovation in the U.K. will require “interdisciplinary thinking and support from funding bodies.” Such support is necessary to help the country “stay ahead of the worldwide innovation game,” he said. Bergeles argued that funding also needs to be intensified to “support novel ideas that will benefit society.”

“Additionally, to successfully deploy current robots in society, collaboration across multiple stakeholders is required,” he said. “For example, advances in autonomous cars, which is an excellent example of U.K. innovation, should go hand in hand with updates of regulatory requirements and solidification of legal frameworks for their use.

“Similarly, if drones are to successfully be deployed for agriculture monitoring, researchers should work in tandem with air-traffic regulation authorities,” Bergeles said.

“Finally, in a globalised community, successful marketing will only be possible if robotics are able to be directly deployed across big contingent markets,” he added. “Hence, as technology matures, return on investment will only be possible if global distribution and deployment has been considered.”

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