UK Robotics Week 2019 - What we learned

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton July 2, 2019
Chris Middleton presents an exclusive report, where he considers the opportunities and challenges facing the robotics sector in 2019 and beyond.

Image of a robot

UK Robotics Week culminated in a showcase event in London last week, which brought together many of the country’s thought leaders, academics, entrepreneurs, and policymakers in this hotly contested space, together with some cutting-edge technologies.

A bustling marquee near the conference room showcased a broad range of advances, from robotic wearables, hands, and arms, to companion robots, medical devices, and biomorphic drones that model the behaviour of bees. New interfaces for human-robot interaction were also on display, as were the next generation of programmable ‘cobots’ (collaborative robots), such as Eva by UK specialist Automata.

Welcoming delegates to the fourth annual event, Prof Guang-Zhong Yang, Chair of the UK-RAS Network – the division of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) that focuses on robotics and autonomous systems – said that his organisation funded the event to “bring the industry together and engage in conversation”.

It succeeded in those aims, and with presentations from Rannia Leontaridi, Director of Business Growth at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Director of the new Office for AI; Professor Lynn Gladden, Executive Chair of the EPSRC; Professor Yang Gao, Director of the FAIR-SPACE robotics hub at The University of Surrey; Assistant Professor Amanda Prorok from the Department of Computer Science and Technology at Cambridge University; and Helen Fulson, Chief Product Officer at Twinkl, among others, the showcase also provided a welcome statement of women’s growing leadership in this industry.

The event felt diverse, busy, and bursting with ideas – at a time when women (11 percent of UK STEM workers and just 10 percent of engineers) and ethnic minorities (less than ten percent of UK STEM workers) often appear marginalised at technology conferences. The more visible women and minorities are at these events, the more others will be inspired to follow them into senior roles – and into STEM careers.

Leontaridi observed that she was “among friends”, adding that her remit at BEIS is centred on “things that are small, beautiful, and willing to grow” in the economy. Via the Industrial Strategy, the government wants to improve productivity and nurture new sectors, she said, with intelligent automation helping to solve some of the biggest socio-economic problems. These include the Grand Challenges: healthy ageing, future mobility, clean growth, and preparing the economy for the rise of artificial intelligence (AI).

Leontaridi acknowledged that more needs to be done to foster a healthy robotics and AI sector for the long term, including the introduction of light-touch regulation that will help to drive new industries in the UK without creating barriers to them. She said:

Government can play an important role in bringing people together and unlocking the potential for funding and guidance.

The EPSRC’s Gladden explained that UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) – the body that combines the seven UK research councils (including the EPSRC and Innovate UK) and works in partnership with universities, businesses, charities, and government – has renewed UK-RAS’ funding for a further three years.

She explained:

This will help support UK Robotics Week’s public engagement, thought leadership, and coordination activities. The UK-RAS Network plays a key role in supporting universities in their scientific and research endeavours in robotics and autonomous systems. It allows them to share their best practice and new thinking, encourage new talent, and promote the use of responsible research and innovation.

Twenty-eight universities partnered with UK-RAS to stage Robotics Week this year, with sponsors including the Robotics Hubs, oilfield services giant Schlumberger, the Wellcome Trust, and many more.

That said, Gladden acknowledged that UKRI is just a year old and, as such, is “a work in progress”. Yet its core advantage is its ability to link researchers with industry, government, and charities, while retaining what she called “the immediacy of big ideas”.

Government involvement

Notable by its absence at the event was any mention of Brexit. This was a relief to delegates, no doubt, but the UK’s on/off future outside the EU remains the spectre at the feast, casting a pall over strategy, taking up valuable time, energy, and talent that should be delivering the Industrial Strategy, and calling into question long-term funding and policy priorities.

Among the recipients of government backing in recent years have been the four Robotics Hubs, which are designed to help speed UK research and innovation out of its universities and into new commercial partnerships.

The Hubs had a strong presence at the showcase. Alongside Professor Gao, head of the Future AI & Robotics for Space Hub (FAIR-SPACE), there were keynote presentations from: Professor David Lane, chief of the ORCA Hub (Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets); Professor Barry Lennox, Director of the Robotics and Artificial Intelligence for Nuclear Hub (RAIN); and Professor Rustam Stolkin, head of the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR), which focuses on safe decommissioning – a £200 billion cost savings opportunity.

The Hubs were funded through UKRI as part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund’s (ISCF) Robotics for a Safer World Challenge, which has focused over £93 million of investment on developing RAS solutions for extreme environments. These are commonplace in industries such as offshore energy, deep-sea infrastructure maintenance, space technology (including satellite communications), deep mining, and nuclear power.

Such environments present unique opportunities for robotics simply because they are lethal or hazardous to humans. They also share a number of challenges, including communications problems, radiation or other lethal emissions, lack of oxygen, 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.

A US delegation at the event saw potential in collaborating with the UK in these fields. Dr. Ron Diftler, Chief of the Robotic Systems Technology Branch at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Dr Stephen Hart, Senior Scientist at robotics research group TRACLabs, and Professor Mitchell Pryor, Research Scientist at the University of Texas, set out their joint response to the Hubs’ pioneering work. More on this in a separate report, which will explore extreme environments opportunities in greater depth.

The challenge of autonomy in the transport sector

Another core focus for the Industrial Strategy is the autonomous transport sector, from driverless and connected cars to autonomous taxis, delivery vans, and trucks. The UK believes that these will: make roads safer in a world in which 95 percent of fatal car accidents are caused by human error; democratise personal transport by making it available to everyone, including the young, old, sick, and disabled; and minimise the need for car ownership in cities by helping to create an integrated, on-demand network.

But getting to the point where driverless vehicles are pervasive, connected, and co-ordinated by default – autonomous mobile assets in a holistic transport system – creates some fascinating challenges, said Cambridge University’s Prorok. In turn, these will change the way we allocate space in cities. So how does one exploit this connectivity and coordination in a smart way? she asked. And how can vehicles be coordinated in traffic, while ensuring both performance gains and safety for human passengers?

In a fascinating presentation, she set out how the university is developing technology that enables consensus between autonomous vehicles, solving common problems such as cars stacking up on motorways and freeways. Part of the challenge is the mass of connected vehicles being able to recognise when a vehicle is behaving in a non-cooperative way, because it has been hacked or is malfunctioning.

In crowded cities with equally packed on-demand service markets, another challenge will be getting autonomous cars to customers as quickly as possible, she said. One solution is to design redundancy into the system: the cost of oversupplying vehicles in response to a customer’s hail is likely to be less than the cost of not serving that customer at all, so robots will compete to offer services in the shortest possible time.

In such an environment, the regulatory and ethical dimensions of autonomous machines will come to the fore, suggested Professor John McDermid of York University. He is the co-author of a new white paper, Ethical Issues for Robotics and Autonomous Systems, which was published at the event. This offers pragmatic guidance for robot designers and operators, and explores the impact of ‘moral machines’ on employment, decision-making, governance, and oversight.

Education and skills

A second white paper on the need for education and skills in a world in which robotics and autonomous systems are commonplace was not ready in time for the event, but was promised in time for UK Robotics Week 2020.

Tony Prescott, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Sheffield, set out some of the key themes of that future paper, which will address one of the major challenges facing the UK today: when they leave education, 65 percent of today’s primary school children will work in jobs that don’t even exist yet. Industrial revolutions are a race between education and technology, he said, and the UK’s apparent inability to bring robotics into the UK workforce at scale is causing it to fall behind in productivity terms.

There is evidence to back up this claim. According to International Federation of Robotics ( statistics, the UK is just 22nd in the global league of robot adoption, and is the only G7 nation with a robot density (the number of robots per 10,000 human workers) that is below the global average. Meanwhile, the UK’s productivity problem is set out by the Office for National Statistics here

UK-RAS itself has a role to play in outreach and education. As part of UK Robotics Week, the organisation ran a number of challenges, including the School Robot Competition, and the international Surgical Robot Challenge, to encourage innovation in a competitive setting.

The School Robot Competition – to design a robot that can cross the rocky terrain of Mars – was open to all UK students aged between eight and 14, and was won by Landau Forte College Derby, with Fittleworth C of E Village School in Pulborough, West Sussex, coming second. The Surgical Robot Challenge, designed to showcase advances in robotic medicine, was won by Kyushu University in Japan, with its set of robotic forceps for minimally invasive surgery.

My take

The day-long showcase culminated in an impressive presentation, ‘The Deepest Dive’, by documentary film maker Anthony Geffen, with Patrick Lahey, co-founder and President of Triton Submarines. They explained how robotic platforms have helped human beings reach the deepest point in the ocean: the Mariana Trench in the Pacific.

This theme of robots going where humans fear to tread – or are unable to tread – is perhaps the key to winning greater public support for technologies that are often greeted with hysteria and scepticism, despite their commercial potential.

The constant theme of robots stealing our jobs and sweeping humanity from the face of the Earth is damaging, given that the government has identified robotics, autonomous systems, and AI as critical to the UK’s future prosperity.

Just as mobility and ecommerce have created new companies, new services, and new types of job, so will robots, AI, the Internet of Things, and other Industry 4.0 technologies, such as sensors, unmanned aerial systems, and driverless vehicles. Not only that, but the data gathered by these technologies will also create new opportunities and help us to build more sustainable communities, cities, industries, and services.

The economy will change and the nature of many jobs will change too, or at least be affected by these advances. So the key to survival in this new world will be putting in place a culture of lifelong learning, up-skilling, and retraining, to keep humans one step ahead of the machines – or at least working alongside them.

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