Robotic solutions to enable safer working environments

Posted by Professor David Lane, Professor Rustam Stolkin, Professor Yang Gao and Professor Barry Lennox on 10 November 2017

Robotics and AI are rarely out of the media headlines these days as we debate whether they offer opportunity or threat to our society and way of life. But using these technologies and advances to help keep us safe and tackle high risk environments must surely be seen as an opportunity that we need to make the most of.

Four new research hubs were announced this week as part of the government’s £93 million of funding for the robotics and AI in extreme environments programme through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. The Hubs will develop robotic solutions to enable safer working environments in the areas of offshore energy, nuclear energy and space.

Offshore energy

The international offshore energy industry currently faces the triple challenges of an oil price expected to remain less than $50 a barrel, significant expensive decommissioning commitments of old infrastructure (especially North Sea) and small margins on the traded commodity price per KWh of offshore renewable energy. In addition, the offshore workforce is ageing as new generations of suitable graduates prefer not to work in hazardous places offshore. Operators are seeking more cost effective, safe methods and business models for inspection, repair and maintenance of their topside and marine offshore infrastructure.

Remote operations using robotics and artificial intelligence are seen as a key enabling technology for remote operations. Fewer staff offshore reduces cost, increases safety and workplace appeal. The long-term industry vision is for a completely autonomous off shore energy field, operated, inspected and maintained from the shore. At the same time, significant research progress is being made in robotic autonomy, mobility, manipulation, sensor processing, autonomous mapping, navigation, multimodal interfaces and human-machine collaboration. The time is now right to further develop, integrate and de-risk these into certifiable evaluation prototypes because there is a pressing need to keep UK offshore oil and renewable energy fields economic, and to develop more productive and agile products and services that UK startups, SMEs and the supply chain can export internationally. This will maintain a key economic sector currently worth £40 billion and 440,000 jobs to the UK economy, and a supply chain adding a further £6 billion in exports of goods and services.

The Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets (ORCA) Hub aims to use robotics and AI to revolutionise Asset Integrity Management in the offshore energy sector to enable these cheaper, safer and more efficient working practices. Its architecture couples EPSRC core support with matching financial support from industry and innovation agency partners.

For further information: Orca Hub website or email Orca Hub


The nuclear industry has some of the most extreme environments in the world, with radiation levels and other hazards frequently restricting human access to facilities. To date, robotic systems have had limited impact on the nuclear industry, but they offer considerable opportunities to improve productivity and reduce human risk.

The Robotics and Artificial Intelligence for Nuclear (RAIN) Hub is a collaborative project led by The University of Manchester and involving experts in robotics and nuclear engineering from the Universities of Oxford, Liverpool, Sheffield, Nottingham, Lancaster, Bristol and the UKAEA’s RACE centre. RAIN will create an engaging, inspiring and industry-driven community that will undertake world-leading research and develop innovative technologies that address the challenges posed by the entire nuclear industry from decommissioning and waste management to fusion, plant life extension and new build.

RAIN is intricately linked with key nuclear partners across the industry, including major end-users: Sellafield Ltd, EDF Energy, AWE and Rolls Royce and organisations of all sizes across the nuclear supply chain: Createc, Nuvia, Jacobs and James Fisher Nuclear for example. International partners including US National Labs and universities, the Italian Institute of Technology and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency provide opportunities for RAIN to address global challenges and to become an international centre of excellence in nuclear robotics.

For further information: Barry Lennox

The National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR) is a major new initiative, aimed at permanently establishing the UK as a world-leading centre in developing advanced robotics and AI technologies for nuclear industry applications. Remediating the UK’s legacy nuclear waste, represents a national liability of as much as £220 billion, with world-wide clean-up costs of order £1 trillion. Due to extremely hazardous materials and environments, much of this work can only be done by robots, but new advances in robotics and AI are urgently needed. Additionally, robotics and AI advances are needed for maintaining and monitoring our existing nuclear power stations, and facilitating the safe building and operation of new-build nuclear power-plants.

NCNR is a network of eight UK universities, with major international collaborators spanning three continents. Importantly, NCNR has established active collaborations with both the nuclear and robotics industries, other kinds of extreme environment industries, and also international venture capital investors in robotics and AI technologies. This will enable the rapid industrialisation and deployment of our new technologies, to benefit the UK’s economy, while also remediating the environment for future generations.

For further information: Rustam Stolkin


The challenges of working in space cannot be overestimated with our ambition to always go further and our hunger to know even more about the universe our planet exists in. 

The aim of the Future AI and Robotics for Space (FAIR-SPACE) Hub is to go beyond the state-of-the-art in robotic sensing and perception, mobility and manipulation, on-board and on-ground autonomous capabilities, and human-robot interaction, to enable space robots to perform complex tasks on long duration missions with minimal dependence on ground crew.

The Hub’s research programme will see novel technologies being developed for robotic platforms used in orbit or on planet surfaces, namely: future orbital robots for repairing satellites, assembling large space telescopes, manufacturing in space, removal of space junk; and future planetary robots for surveying, observation, extraction of resources, and deploying infrastructure for human arrival and habitation; further applications will also target astronauts-robot interoperability aboard the International Space Station or for the future Moon Village.

The Hub’s core research will merge the best available off-the-shelf hardware and software solutions with trail-blazing innovations and new standards and frameworks, leading to a constellation of space RAI prototypes and tools. This will accelerate the prototyping of autonomous systems in a scalable way, where the innovations and methodologies developed can be rapidly spun out for wide adoption in the space sector worldwide.

For further information: Yang Gao


In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Professor David Lane, CBE FREng FRSE
Job title: Professor and Founding Director
Organisation: Edinburgh Centre for Robotics

Professor David Lane CBE FREng FRSE is Professor and Founding Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, a £100M joint venture between Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh Universities training over 100 innovation ready PhD students. A former offshore driver/maintainer with British Oceanics (now Subsea7) and Development Engineers (Ferranti Ltd, Edinburgh), he is also a robotics entrepreneur and investor, a strategic Board level advisor to Governments, companies and research organisations with significant experience organizing and running major multi-party research and innovation projects internationally.

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Professor Rustam Stolkin
Job title: Director
Organisation: National Centre for Nuclear Robotics

Professor Rustam Stolkin is Director of the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics. He is Chair in Robotics at University of Birmingham, and Royal Society Industry Fellow for Nuclear Robotics, part-embedded in National Nuclear Laboratory. He is active in advanced academic robotics and AI research, and also in technology transfer and industrialisation of these technologies. Rustam has also dedicated many years to educational outreach work and public communication of science.

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Professor Yang Gao, FIET FRAeS
Job title: Hub Director
Organisation: FAIR-SPACE

Professor Yang Gao FIET FRAeS, Hub Director of FAIR-SPACE, is the Professor of Space Autonomous Systems and Associate Dean (International) within Faculty of Engineering and Physical Science at University of Surrey. She brings about 20 years of research experience in robotic vision, machine learning and biomimetics with applications to space systems and robots alike, and is actively involved in developing real-world space robotic missions such as ESA’s ExoMars, Proba3 and LUCE, UK’s MoonLITE and Moonraker, and China’s Chang’E.

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Professor Barry Lennox
Job title: Director of RAIN
Section / Team: Applied Control and Nuclear Engineering Decommissioning
Department: School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering
Organisation: University of Manchester

Barry Lennox, Director of RAIN, is Professor of Applied Control and Nuclear Engineering Decommissioning in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at The University of Manchester and is the Research Director of the Dalton Cumbrian Facility. His research interests are in control systems and their use in robotics and he has considerable experience in transferring leading edge technology in to industry.