Special Relationship? New US partnerships ahead for the UK’s Robotics Hubs?

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton July 3, 2019
UK Robotics Week showed how the UK’s Robotics Hubs are reaching out to the world.

UK Robotics Week panel

UK Robotics Week witnessed the potential beginnings of some promising relationships between the UK’s Robotics Hubs and a number of US organisations – if comments from NASA, robotics research group TRACLabs, and the University of Texas are anything to go by.

The annual robotics jamboree culminated at a showcase event in London last week [read diginomica’s exclusive report here], which brought together many of the UK’s leading academics, policymakers, and entrepreneurs in robotics and autonomous systems (RAS). Also present was a contingent from the US, at the invitation of their research counterparts: the UK’s four academic Robotics Hubs.

The Hubs co-sponsored UK Robotics Week this year, alongside luminaries such as US oilfield services giant Schlumberger, healthcare research organisation the Wellcome Trust, Chinese industrial robotics company Kuka, and others – demonstrating both the breadth of robotics’ presence across different industrial sectors and the potential for real international collaboration.

NASA, TRACLabs, and the University of Texas could be next on the list for tie-ups with UK organisations – if the right model for joint funding and collaboration could be found.

Hubs of innovation

So who are the UK Robotics Hubs, and what is their purpose? The four organisations are:-

  1. The National Hub on Future AI & Robotics for Space (FAIR-SPACE), led by the University of Surrey with over 30 international partners. The organisation is in the vanguard of research into new software and hardware technologies to enable future space robots to repair satellites, assemble large space telescopes, manufacture products in space, remove space debris, extract natural resources (from the Moon, planets, or asteroids), and deploy infrastructure for astronauts. With mankind returning to the Moon over the next decade, robots will be a critical means of establishing and maintaining long-term colonies there, according to strategic statements from NASA this year. The space agency has announced partnerships with a number of US robotics startups.
  2. The Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets (ORCA) Hub, which brings together offshore robotics experts from Heriot-Watt University, the University of Edinburgh, the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, the University of Liverpool, and Imperial College London. This Hub is exploring subsea, ground, and aerial robotics, human-machine interaction, sensors, and asset management & certification systems for the offshore energy sector. The long-term aim is creating completely autonomous, self-maintaining installations – a strategic vision shared by a number of oil and gas companies.
  3. The Robotics & Artificial Intelligence for Nuclear Hub (RAIN), an alliance of robotics and nuclear engineering experts from the universities of Manchester, Lancaster, Oxford, Liverpool, Sheffield, Bristol, and Nottingham, alongside representatives from RACE (Remote Applications in Challenging Environments), a robotics test facility near Oxford. RAIN seeks to bring about major health and safety improvements in the nuclear energy sector by developing robotic remote inspection technologies, minimising human workers’ risk of exposure to radioactive material.
  4. The National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR), an academic consortium led by the University of Birmingham, with the universities of Bristol, Edinburgh, Lancaster, Essex, Lincoln, the West of England, and Queen Mary University of London onboard – and four more joining soon. The NCNR is focused on robotics for nuclear decommissioning, radioactive waste management, and site monitoring: complementary skills and applications to the work of RAIN, but with some crossover.

Extreme opportunities

The four Hubs were founded to speed UK research out of universities and into new commercial partnerships, and were funded through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund’s (ISCF) Robotics for a Safer World challenge.

To date, this has channelled over £93 million of government funds into developing robotic solutions for extreme environments. As we have seen, these are the types of operating environments that pose serious risks to workers in industries such as offshore energy, space technology, and nuclear power, and others such as deep mining.

Environments like these that are hazardous or lethal to humans present unique opportunities for innovators, because robots and autonomous systems may be the only way to carry out some tasks safely and efficiently within them.

They also share a number of challenges that robots need to overcome, including communications problems, radiation or other toxic emissions, low visibility, and more. As a result, technologies that have been developed for one application – such as AI, shared control systems, computer vision, robotic grippers, and so on – may have commercial potential in others. This cross-sector appeal is likely to become a focus of investment opportunities.

Leadership positions

The directors of all four Hubs spoke at the London showcase event.

FAIR-SPACE chief Professor Yang Gao has a matchless CV in the space technology sector. As well as being Hub Director, she is Associate Dean (International) in the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Surrey, and Professor of Space Autonomous Systems at Surrey Space Centre. She has been actively involved in the design and development of numerous space missions, including the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Mission, which will land the Rosalind Franklin rover on the red planet in 2021.

Gao explained that the space sector presents some tough problems to robotics developers, due to the challenging physics of escaping the Earth’s gravity to deliver systems to space, such as the limited capacity and weight of spacecraft. Issues such as mass, volume, and power make space robotics expensive, she explained, so the Hub is presumably working towards developing systems that are smaller, lighter, and less power hungry.

FAIR-SPACE is also developing technologies for in-orbit robotic manipulation and grasping, and augmented situational awareness for co-working between astronauts and robots, demonstrating that the UK has a much wider presence in the space sector than many people realise. Britain is the second biggest financial contributor to the ExoMars mission after Italy, for example.

According to ONS figures, UK space exports are set to grow to £25 billion by the end of the next decade. In 2016-17, those exports were worth just £5.5 billion, but in the same year the UK space industry supported 41,900 jobs, with nearly one-fifth based in Scotland.

Professor Rustam Stolkin is Director of the NCNR at the University of Birmingham, and also leads the Extreme Robotics Lab, which is described as “Europe’s most prominent university research lab dedicated to nuclear and other extreme environment applications of advanced robotics and AI”.

An outspoken proponent of robotics for nuclear decommissioning, he believes that these technologies could represent a $200 billion UK savings opportunity to take humans out of harm’s way. At present, nuclear waste disposal is slow, dangerous manual work, which involves employees cutting up radioactive material by hand. It’s also wasteful: hazmat suits and gloves themselves become radioactive and have to be disposed of.

Speaking at the event, Stolkin acknowledged that the nuclear sector is a “very conservative industry” at present, in that it is resistant to the concept of autonomous systems either assisting or replacing human workers. Overcoming that scepticism and fear is a compelling reason to take research out of labs and turn it into successful products as a commercial proof of concept.

The NCNR has already deployed robots at the sites of nuclear disasters, including ground robots and sensor-packed unmanned aerial systems (UASs, or drones) at Chernobyl and Fukushima. The Hub is strongly motivated by ethical and societal values to make work safer for humans and clean up the planet, he said – a theme of environmental stewardship that will hopefully inspire young people to get involved in STEM careers.

ORCA Hub chief Professor David Lane, Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, has research interests in analytics, biomimesis, and autonomy – including the engineering of advanced cognition into unmanned systems. The energy sector is in a state of flux as it “decarbonises itself”, he explained. This is not only changing the nature of the industry, but also of work within it, so another part of the Hub’s remit is reducing cost and risk for an ageing workforce.

Underwater robotics are a development hotspot for the Hub, an area where the UK again has a significant presence. Earlier this year, the government announced backing for a multimillion pound underwater engineering centre in Aberdeen, which will join other marine technology centres, such as those in Portsmouth, Southampton, Plymouth, Liverpool, and elsewhere. According to government figures, the UK currently has a 40 percent share of the global market in underwater engineering.

Finally, RAIN Hub Director Barry Lennox is Professor of Applied Control in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Manchester, and held the EPRSC Chair in Nuclear Decommissioning between 2012 and 2014. His own research interests are the development and deployment of robotic systems for nuclear decommissioning, applied control, and the monitoring of pipelines. For example, his work in acoustics has led to equipment that has been commercially deployed in the North Sea, Asia, and the US to locate blockages in subsea pipelines.

For Lennox, the priority is translating research from university to industry, with a vision to make robotic systems the norm in the nuclear sector – he observed that robots’ presence at Sellafield, for example, is currently minimal. However, one of the challenges of working in the nuclear sector is that robots themselves become radioactive, which means they either need to be able to operate safely in that condition, be easy to decontaminate, or simply be disposable – which has cost implications. Designing robots that are robust, functional, safe, and also disposable presents unique design and investment challenges.

The extreme dozen visit the US

In March this year, the Hubs sent a 12-strong delegation of speakers, including Gao, Stolkin, and other senior representatives, to the Automation, AI & Robotics Workshop, a two-day conference hosted at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. That event was attended by representatives from a number of US and UK universities, research centres, engineering companies, and robotics startups, including a separate UK trade mission of robotics and AI experts, who were all recipients of ISCF investment (more on that in a forthcoming diginomica report).

The US has apparently responded in kind. Judging by the American presence at the Robotics Week showcase in London, conversations have been ongoing since March between the four Hubs and at least three US organisations: NASA, TRACLabs, and the University of Texas, delegates from which were guests of the Hubs last week.

Dr. Ron Diftler, Chief of NASA’s Robotic Systems Technology branch at the Johnson Space Center, Dr. Stephen Hart, Senior Scientist at TRACLabs, and Professor Mitchell Pryor, Research Scientist at the University of Texas, all spoke at the UK Robotics Week showcase in London.

They set out the US’ shared perspective on extreme environments opportunities for robots, in particular for applications such as space and nuclear energy. In a closing panel session, the US delegation put up a slide labelled ‘Opportunities for UK-US Collaboration’, setting out what they believed – from their conversations with the Hubs – could be areas for cross-pollination, hypothetically, in the future.

For the FAIR-SPACE Hub, the US identified drilling, satellite servicing, and terrain traversal; for NCNR, robotic techniques for grasping and manipulation, and for shared control and operation of remote systems; for RAIN, virtual reality for training, plus increased autonomy and goal-directed tele-operation; and for ORCA, offshore rig automation – potentially a huge commercial market.

The University of Texas indicated it could share domain-specific robotics expertise, NASA that it could expand its humanoid robot activities – one of the space agency’s Valkyrie humanoids is already installed at the University of Edinburgh, where researchers are developing its co-working and manipulation capabilities – and TRACLabs its cross-platform standardisation abilities and expertise in remote interfaces.

Emphasising the horizontal potential of technologies that have been developed for extreme environments, the US delegation also suggested that manufacturing, exploration, and medical robotics might be further areas for collaboration in future.

My take

With Brexit on the horizon (as far as anyone can tell), the UK has been reaching out to a number of countries in recent months, including South Korea, China, Japan, and (in particular) the US, via a series of expert missions that seek new opportunities for British technology startups and blue chips. Meanwhile, the Hubs have been reaching out across the world too, which is great news for British academia and for the status of home-grown robotics research on the international stage.

However, one outstanding challenge for any ongoing relationship between the Hubs and, say, US companies or government organisations, will be the difficulty in creating and managing joint funding vehicles. As one delegate observed from the floor, who is in charge of pressing the button in terms of funding and collaboration? That answer will need to come from the government.

Image credit - Chris Middleton

Disclosure - The author was present at the Houston robotics event in March, observing a separate UK robotics mission. He was not part of the Hubs delegation.

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