Do technologists dream of electric sheep?

UK participation in robotics and autonomous systems is tipped to shape the next wave of technological advancement. Victoria Fitzgerald gets technical on RAS 2020.

In the past 100 years, society has witnessed unprecedented change in the field of autonomous systems from the most primitive version of the auto pilot in 1912 to driverless cars set to tear up UK roads from January 2015.

According to the 2013 Disruptive Technologies report by McKinsey, the application of advanced robotics could generate a potential economic impact of $1.6 trillion to $6.4 trillion per year by 2025. These profits have the potential to produce significant improvements in health, new products and innovating the way products are built and services delivered.

Despite the enormous changes in 100 years, the rate of development in the past five years has produced substantial momentum. Huw Davies, lead technologist for electronic sensors and robotics at the Technology Strategy Board told TM: “Computing went from the mainframe to the work station, the PC, to the laptop, to the tablet, to the smart phone and the pace of that accelerated over the last 5 years, going from the PC to our smartphones, the pace of that has been incredible.

“But robotics at the moment is at the stage of going from the mainframe to the work station, so we’ve got all of that to look forward to, the mass adoption of robotic technology.”

The rate of development from PC to smartphone is indicative of the potential development of robotics and autonomous systems with the right interest and investment. This narrow window of time has been labelled the “early mover advantage” by RAS SIG (Robotics and Autonomous Systems Special Interest Group).

The RAS market is emerging but not ubiquitous, so there has never been a better time for the UK to get involved and recognise the market’s importance in driving innovation, productivity and economic growth.

But capitalising on this is easier said than done. To address the situation key stakeholders from government, academia and industry met with the Technology Strategy board to create RAS-SIG, a special interest group tasked with the mission of understanding the landscape and opportunity for RAS in the UK and to produce RAS 2020, a national strategy to respond to what the UK Government labelled in 2012 as one of the Eight Great Technologies that support UK Industrial Strategy driving efforts to rebalance the economy.

Robotics and Autonomous Systems Strategy recommendations

1 Invest further in the five RAS strategy strands.

2 Establish the means for funding agencies to formally work together in execution, so that ideas. People and activity flow readily from basic investigation through early stage development to fully trialled commercial product.

3 Establish an RAS Leadership Council to engage with senior leaders across a range of sectors in industry, academia and Government to provide oversight of the strategy’s execution.

4 Further develop engagement with the EU, investors and corporate resources in the UK and overseas to fuel the development of the five strands.

5 Continue to consult widely on potential Assets and cross sector Grand Challenges.

6 Continue to develop dialogue with those involved in standard and regulation, such as BSI and CCA, to develop more detailed thinking.

7 Extend outreach and public engagement activities to continue changing public perceptions and improve understanding of public concerns.

8 Articulate to business and investors internationally that the UK aims to be the best place to invest in taking RAS technologies to market.

Chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board, Iain Gray said the strategy was aimed at drawing together communities, whether it was manufacturing, health, or automotive, then identifying the real business opportunities.

“The problem is, in the past there has been strong focus around the technology development and not enough focus around the market opportunities,” Mr Gray said. “What the strategy is doing is helping to bring the different players together to understand what the market opportunities are.” The strategy identifies five interwoven strands that will facilitate the UK’s involvement in the sector: coordination, assets, grand challenges, clusters and skills.

Clusters and coordination

Rich Walker, managing director of the shadow robot company emphasises that “clusters are a very old concept in industrial strategy.” “How do you get good at something? By linking up the community and the entrepreneurial people, investors, technical development community,” he said.

“If you need some cutting-edge research, you need a place where you can do that. For instance, for nuclear research, the Northwest of England is fantastic for that. If you want to do offshore work you go to Aberdeen.

“Part of the goal is to look at the UK and ask where we have areas that could be clusters and how can we facilitate the developments of that. We may have to reach out to Europe and use European structural funds or group together a number of universities and get them to work together.

“For instance all the universities in Sheffield will come together and form the Sheffield centre for robotics, which is a pooling of their weight and a much stronger robotics cluster than any of them would have had individually.”

The clusters will be facilitated by coordination, Walker continues. “It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, as long as other people know about it. Others should know the challenges faced in each industry, what the treasury is worrying about in 5 years’ time and the gap in the skills pipeline etc.

“Having forums to bring people together and making sure they have the opportunity to explore each other’s issues and help to solve problems and provide support.”

Grand challenges, assets and skills

Grand challenges will work in harmony with assets to create real-life scenarios, using assets as test grounds to trial, innovate and ensure regulatory barriers are avoided.

Walker adds: “The assets will be a mechanism by which we will open up challenges. How the assets are selected, that will come out of other parts of UK industrial strategy and other parts of UK societal challenges, as well as organisations that are willing to participate.

“The idea is to set up a challenge and surround it with the correct infrastructure to get a lot of development. Create an opportunity to motivate the next generation of developers, to focus in and make some big steps forward with the underlying technologies and hopefully generate some exciting new businesses.”

Skills

Success would be impossible without a robust skills base, a provision of skilled workers who can move seamlessly between academia and industry. This strand of the strategy aims to foster the skills of existing expertise and cultivate the up and coming generation. EPSRC has funded the building of four new RAS centres for doctoral training.

Organisations like the Knowledge Transfer Network and UKTI will be critical to the success of new businesses RAS will produce. Gray believes a welcome outcome of the strategy would be a boost in STEM subject interest as a whole.

“That would be a very important consequential effect of what we are doing,” he said. “But it’s not a driver for us per se, every company that we deal with identifies skills as a key issue and so we’ve got to use every opportunity to help raise that as an agenda item.

Robotics and autonomous systems, a bit like space and high performance sports they attract interest, how do we use the interest in robotics and autonomous systems to help support that, as opposed to it being a key driver in what we are doing?”

Investment

The strategy implied government funding would build the scheme with a hope that private investors would carry the programme forward. Rich Walker told: “We have quite good early stage investment in the UK, things like the Enterprise Investment Scheme are actually very good.

“We need to make people aware of it and then start the process of linking up the people, like universities, with entrepreneurs and with people who’ve had problems, and to do that you need a coherent strategy body pulling those strands together.

However, according to Huw Davies from TSB, government has not allocated any extra funding to RAS, which may prove a considerable barrier, “The launch of the strategy document was more about the community, informing the wider community about the opportunities,” he said.

“So it’s really important that government hasn’t allocated any funds, that industry, academia and other stakeholders are presenting the case to Government and other people and say that this is a really important area for the UK to get involved in. It’s very much a document to influence and inform.”

Davies also mentioned that following the launch of the report he was approached by two venture capital companies interested in researching opportunities for robotics. He said: “if we can tap into that through the strategy over the next five years from the VC community matching funding, the eco system will be in a much stronger position to exploit the markets that will be merging at that point.”

Inertia

Despite citing regulations as a problem Gray remains confident. “It’s about setting new standards, making sure we get the standards right from the beginning,” he said. Walker regarded regulations as a challenge that would be addressed by the assets, saying that in certain areas “regulations stifle innovation” and that people should make sure they get the right advice when developing regulation.

IainGray
Iain Gray, chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board

Walker does, however, see another barrier in convincing investors and industry to take evolved steps forward to take advantage of new technology. “Projects that they thought they couldn’t do anything with 20 years ago they can revisit. We know there are plenty of organisations around to take advantage of these, we know the Korean government is plugging a huge amount of money into robotics, the Japanese government into enabling assisted living robotics.

“The biggest barrier is that inertia will cause us to be behind on everything because everything takes a lot longer than anyone would like, it’s one of those things that wouldn’t be anyone’s fault. When innovation starts happening you have to start running, or everyone else gets ahead, and you’ll fall behind very quickly.”

What the strategy suggests is no mean feat but if the studies are accurate the UK stands to gain substantially from capitalising on the “early mover advantage”. According to Gray, the market is set to take five to 10 years to properly develop, he told : “There will be short term applications all the time, look at organisations like Dyson, they are doing a lot with robotic systems around the house.”

The UK needs to move now, in January Google purchased Nest Labs for $3.2b, developers of an automatic thermostat, which learns from a household’s dwelling habits, adjusting and readjusting heating and cooling to personal schedules even as they change over long periods of time.

FURTHER READING:
The read more about the RAS 2020 strategy visit https://connect.innovateuk.org/web/ras-sig

The good news is the use of automation has been proven to increase productivity according to Walker. “What we have found with the introduction of automation technology, when you add robots to a factory you end up adding jobs. Studies across Europe where they looked at productivity and correlated it with the levels of automation, and in the UK we are slightly behind the leaders.

“If we stepped up to their level, we’d add 22% productivity and we’d add seven per cent jobs overall.” The strategy aims to unite the relevant knowledge, talent and organisations in RAS and provide coherent steps to develop the UK into a leader in the sector, but the lack of additional government funding, the looming threat of inertia and regulations are set to throw a spanner into the works of the even the best laid schemes of mice and men. Only time will tell.