UK robotics and AI technologies can have a global impact

Posted by Dr Lucy Martin on 20 June 2018
Photo of a C-Enduro unmanned surface vehicle on the sea

Edinburgh Centre for Robotics

UK Robotics Week

The impact of robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies is already apparent all around us, and this will accelerate in the coming years.

In fields such as healthcare, social care, transport and manufacturing, these technologies are poised to have a revolutionary effect that will be felt by all of society.

UK Robotics Week, which runs from 21 to 29 June, is an opportunity to showcase the groundbreaking work which is already going on in this field and highlight the opportunities it offers.

And, as 2018 is also the Year of Engineering, this allows us to highlight and celebrate the engineering feats that researchers across the country are undertaking to make the robots of tomorrow a reality.

Examples of this work will be demonstrated at the International Robotics Showcase, which takes place tomorrow (Thursday, 21 June), which will bring together some of the UK's leading robotics and AI teams.

They range from the soft octopus robot being developed at Queen Mary University of London for underwater exploration, to the robots being created at the University of Leeds to make self-repairing cities a reality by spotting and repairing faults such as cracks in the road or faulty pipes.

Robotics and AI for hazardous environments

Robotics and AI systems will also allow us to work in the most inhospitable and hazardous environments imaginable.

From the wild and windy conditions which offshore wind farms operate in to the radioactive cores of nuclear power stations and the vastness of space, they will allow us to explore environments that are too dangerous for humans to enter without risking injury or ill-health.

This challenge is being addressed by the four robotics and AI hubs launched by EPSRC last year with £44.5 million of funding from the government's Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which will also be represented at the International Robotics Showcase.

The ORCA (Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets) Hub led by Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh is taking the lead on the development of completely autonomous remote operations to monitor, maintain and repair offshore assets such as offshore wind turbines.

Work at the Hub has already been recognised with the award of the 2018 Guardian University Award for Business Collaboration, and the first underwater and aerial trials are set to take place next month.

Nuclear power plants are among the most hazardous places on the planet. From the decommissioning of old plants and the removal of waste to maintaining existing plants and preparing and building new ones, robotics and AI has a major part to play in the industry.

The National Centre for Nuclear Robotics, led by the University of Birmingham, has been established to address the urgent need for new advances in robotics and AI systems which can help to remediate the UK's nuclear legacy waste – something which represents a national liability of as much as £220 billion – as well as facilitating the safe building and operation of new plants. 

And the Robotics and Artificial Intelligence for Nuclear (RAIN) Hub, led by the University of Manchester, will develop innovative new technologies that will address challenges ranging from decommissioning and waste management to plant life extension and new build.

Looking far beyond the UK itself, the FAIR-SPACE Hub led by the University of Surrey is developing new systems to help support astronaut missions, remove space junk and repair satellites with the ultimate goal of achieving long-term robotics operations in space.

Researchers are currently addressing use-inspired research challenges in robotic sensing, perception, mobility and autonomy for extreme space environments. Their work could result in robotic and AI systems which can build giant space telescopes and autonomous vehicles able to explore the rough terrain of Mars and other planets.

Developing the UK's leadership

The hubs, which involve a wide range of academic and industry partners, are just one example of the robotics and AI research funded by EPSRC and the organisations which form part of UK Research and Innovation.

EPSRC currently supports a grant portfolio worth £250 million which is relevant to robotics and/or AI training and research, and including the UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems Network which organises UK Robotics Week.

Working with the other organisations which form UK Research and Innovation, EPSRC aims to ensure that the UK builds on existing investments to develop its leadership in this field and strengthens opportunities, leading to long-term economic returns and benefits to society.

The UK government is aware of the nation's rich potential in this field, driven by our world-leading universities and innovative companies, and is committed to providing the support necessary to realising that potential, through the Industrial Strategy and other initiatives.

Our approach reflects the potential that research in this field has to transform a wide range of areas, ranging from enabling healthy and independent living for the elderly to ensuring safe and efficient transportation, and leading in next-generation manufacturing.

The opportunities posed by robotics and AI technology are enormous. We are committed to ensuring that these opportunities are taken, for the benefit of all of society.

Author

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

Portrait photo of Dr Lucy Martin
Name: Dr Lucy Martin
Job title: Head of Robotics
Organisation: EPSRC

Dr Lucy Martin is Head of Robotics at EPSRC which involves leading the development and delivery of EPSRC's plans, strategy and investments for robotics and autonomous systems and working in partnership with the academic and industrial community to identify new opportunities. Prior to this role Lucy has held a number of other roles within the Research Councils including Strategic Lead for Research Resources and Big Data at the Economic and Social Research Council and in the areas of Research Infrastructure and Engineering at EPSRC. Before joining the Research Councils Lucy worked at the Government Office for Science on the Foresight Future of Manufacturing Project and at the National Renewable Energy Centre working in partnership with One North East on low emission vehicle technologies.