June 14, 2016      

Ever since George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, singled out robotics and autonomous technologies as one of the “eight great technologies” of the future, hopes have been high that there will be a period of sustained U.K. robotics investment. But has this rhetoric matched the reality?

‘Superficially impressive’

At a Japan-U.K. Robotics and AI seminar in London in February, Robin Grimes revealed that the British government will invest some £200 million to £300 million ($282 million to $423 million) in the domestic robotics and automation systems (RAS) sector by 2020. This will mainly be funnelled through organizations such as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Innovate UK, said Grimes, chief scientific adviser to the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office and a professor of Materials Physics at Imperial College.

However, although these figures sound “superficially impressive,” Chris Middleton, an editor at Strategist magazine, argued that they compare unfavourably at the international level. For example, he pointed out that the Japanese government says it is investing ¥26 trillion ($245 billion) in robotics by 2020, with the aim of creating a “super-smart society.”

“That’s real ambition backed by hard funding,” he said. “If robotics is truly one of the eight great future sectors for the U.K. economy, why is the investment so small? The levels of investment are pitiful in global terms for one of the world’s largest economies.”

Middleton also stressed that securing investment is “only one part of the equation” and that the government needs to build an “atmosphere of technology trust” for the emerging robotics economy to take root in the U.K. He warned that the U.K. is “especially bad at” building such trust.

“Indeed, the government’s heavy-handed attitude toward technology, privacy, surveillance, and so forth is actively creating distrust and instability in the U.K.’s digital economy,” Middleton said.

The prospect that Great Britain could leave the EU following a referendum on the issue on June 23 will also put a number of international collaborative research programs at risk across the entire spectrum of technology, physics, and engineering,” he said.

U.K. robotics investment is thinly spread

In a somewhat less damning assessment, Mike Wilson, president of the British Automation and Robot Association, said he believes that the current level of robotics investment is probably sufficient.

Wilson ackwnowledged that the country’s progress “may well be dependent” on European collaboration in the future, particularly in view of the fact that funds in the EU are “significantly higher.”

He also warned that U.K. robotics investment is probably being “spread too thinly across too many activities — and that is difficult for stakeholders in the sector to “navigate through the various groups and activities.'”

“If RAS is one of the eight great technologies, it really should have a very specific focus and a clear direction,” Wilson said.

Moreover, although he believes that all of the themes in the current U.K. RAS strategy are “valid and worthwhile,” Wilson argued that “one very important aspect is missing.”

“U.K. RAS is focused on the new technologies and applications, which is important, but there is nothing being done for U.K. manufacturers to help them use robots in their manufacturing facilities with technologies available now,” he said.

CBIS created a Dalek

The result of a CBIS educational project.

“U.K. manufacturing lags [behind] its major competitors in the use of robots, and our productivity is also poor,” Wilson added. “If we do not solve this problem, we run the risk of losing more manufacturing and will not have the capacity to exploit the new RAS technologies when they do come to fruition.”

Small-business perspective

Meanwhile, Chris Burgess, managing director at U.K. technology start-up CBIS Education, called for more support and practical assistance for small robotics businesses. CBIS provides “integrated engagement learning” services based on a combination of robotics kits, cloud resources, and continuing professional development.

Following a personal initial investment, Burgess says the company raised a further £380,000 from a combination of high net worth individuals and U.K. regional growth funds. He is currently in the process of raising the same amount again from a seed fund called Finance Yorkshire, which invests in innovative, technology-driven businesses.

“The money is out there, and the interest in robotics is clearly also out there,” Burgess said. “The issue is often that the technology shift is so rapid that the same issues experienced in schools, with a lack of understanding and skill sets around something like robotics, is also there with investors.”

“Also, the rapid movement means you often don’t have the time it takes to raise award funding like the emerging and enabling technologies Innovate UK fund,” he added. “Either that, or it’s hard to find some assistance with raising the funds. For us, this means there has been a sacrifice of equity, which is never fun as a small business.”

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