September 30, 2015      

The U.K. has established a nationwide robotics network to provide academic leadership in robotics and autonomous systems. It also hopes to strengthen ties between academia and industry in key sectors such as transport, healthcare, and manufacturing, as well as unmanned systems for aerospace, marine, environment, and defense purposes.

Launched in June, the U.K. Robotics and Autonomous Systems Network (UK-RAS) will coordinate activities at eight Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)-funded RAS capital facilities and Centres for Doctoral Training across the country.

Developing Drones in the North

The Northern Robotics Network (NRN) launched Sept. 4 at the MediaCity UK conference at the University of Salford. Robotics and autonomous systems are among the eight technologies identified by Prime Minister David Cameron as essential to the future. The northwestern region hopes that the network will help the local economy rather than simply replace jobs.

Innovate UK‘s NRN is focusing on software, facilities, and infrastructure for unmanned aerial vehicles through the three-year, £9 million ($13.6 million) Growing Autonomous Mission Management Applications (GAMMA) program.

Partners include the North West Aerospace Alliance, BAE Systems, the National Nuclear Laboratories, the Lancashire County Council, and the Regional Growth Fund. Academic partners include universities in Lancaster, Liverpool, Manchester, and Salford.

“GAMMA provides SMEs with funding and practical technology support, enabling them to develop their intellectual property into a successful business,” said David Bailey, chair of the GAMMA steering committee and CEO of the North West Aerospace Alliance.

The market for robotics could reach £70 billion ($106 billion) by 2020, according to the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills.

The network will eventually expand to include more stakeholders, including national laboratories in the U.K. and international collaborators in both academia and industry. There is also strong involvement and support from major industrial partners and the London Science Museum, as well as professional bodies such as the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Institution of Engineering and Technology, and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE).

UK-RAS was formed by universities that undertake “substantial activity in robotics,” explained Tony Prescott, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Sheffield and director of Sheffield Robotics.

The ultimate goal is to expand the network to include all British universities that have activities in robotics and to become “the lead organization representing academic research in robotics and autonomous systems in the U.K.,” he said.

UK-RAS engages robotics stakeholders

The network has an important mission of “bringing together the views and interests of the end users, industry, and academia,” said Sethu Vijayakuma, professor of robotics at the University of Edinburgh and director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics.

The University of Edinburgh's Sethu Vijayakuma

UK-RAS is bringing together academia and industry, says the University of Edinburgh’s Sethu Vijaykuma.

“It represents a large cross-section of expertise in academia, covering robotics research on land, underwater, and in flying domains,” with the goal of synchronizing industrial demand with training at academic institutions, he explained.

The three Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) programs recently funded by the EPSRC are in Edinburgh, Bristol, and Oxford. About 20 to 30 companies collaborate with each CDT by sponsoring Ph.D. studentships and augmenting funding from research councils and universities.

In return, the businesses get an opportunity to shape research topics. Typically, each advisory and external steering committee of these CDTs, as well as those of other research facilities that form UK-RAS, includes an industry leader as the chairperson or an active member.

“The [unique selling proposition] of such a partnership is that is encourages blue-sky thinking beyond what is feasible in the industry while grounding the key directions to real-world needs, delivering potentially disruptive changes to the sector,” said Vijayakuma.

The EPSRC has also invested £25 million ($37.8 million) — plus £6 million ($9 million) from industrial partners — in research infrastructure across the country, with facilities in several cities, including London, Oxford, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Warwick, Southampton, and Leeds.

The RAS community is active

In Vijayakuma’s view, the network has already been particularly useful “for groups organizing large-scale challenges,” including at the TAROS conference and the Hamlyn Medical Robotics Symposium, as well as for the recent call for participation from the ECR on a U.K. Humanoid Research Collaboration around the NASA Valkyrie platform.

The U.K. already has one of the largest and most active robotics communities in Europe, as well as a lot of small and midsize enterprise (SME) activity, said the University of Sheffield’s Prescott. However, he argued that it “lacks larger companies outside the areas of aerospace and defense.”

More on Robotics in the U.K.:

“Robotics worldwide is expanding right now, particularly in the area of service robots,” Prescott said. “Particularly promising areas for the U.K., where we have substantial expertise both in academia and industry, include field robotics in areas such as inspection; energy and agriculture; and assistive robots, particularly in relation to opportunities in healthcare.”

“Both of these areas are fast-growing. There are opportunities now that may have been taken by other countries in five years,” he added. “A key need in the U.K. is to facilitate knowledge transfer from universities into industry, particularly SMEs.”