Break-through robotics and AI projects funded through Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund

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Funding of £68 million will be awarded from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) to the latest ground-breaking research and innovation projects in robotics and artificial intelligence systems.

The awards announced today are part of the government's £93 million of funding for the robotics and AI in extreme environments programme through the ISCF, which was announced in the Budget of April 2017.

The programme aims to develop robotic solutions to make a safer working environment in industries such as off-shore energy, nuclear energy, space and deep mining, increase productivity and open up new cross disciplinary opportunities, not currently available.

The winning projects include:

  • £44.5 million investment, over three and half years, for four research Hubs managed by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The Hubs will develop robotic solutions to enable safer working environments in the areas of off-shore energy, nuclear energy and space, opening up new cross disciplinary opportunities which are not currently available. They will be national Hubs delivering internationally-leading research and will be supported by an additional £51.6 million from commercial and international partners. The UK Space Agency is co-funding one of the Hubs.
  • Funding of £16.5 million following a collaborative R&D competition run by Innovate UK - winners include over 70 businesses, 13 universities and 10 research organisations.
  • Funding of £3 million for 17 demonstrator feasibility studies following a separate competition run by Innovate UK.
  • £4.3 million for the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to fund five research projects at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), and the universities of Exeter and Southampton to develop sensors capable of working in the ocean's extreme conditions. The sensors will be compatible with existing marine robotic vehicles or those in development at NOC, such as the Autosub Long Range (ALR), 'Boaty McBoatface'.

Professor Philip Nelson, EPSRC Chief Executive, said: These new Robotics Hubs will draw on the country's research talent to nurture new developments in the field of robotics and provide the foundations on which innovative technologies can be built. The resulting outcomes from this research will allow us to explore environments that are too dangerous for humans to enter without risking injury or ill-health. The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is helping us achieve a joined up approach to research, discovery and innovation.

Ruth McKernan, Chief Executive of Innovate UK, said: These pioneering projects driven by the very best minds in UK research and industry exemplify the huge potential of what can be achieved through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and the long-term benefits for the UK economy. These are just the first competitions in robotics and AI, there will be further opportunities for businesses in the coming months.

NERC's Chief Executive, Professor Duncan Wingham said: These sensors will help us to better understand our oceans, helping us to manage them sustainably for the future. The projects will develop ambitious new technologies that work in hazardous and extreme environments, maintaining the UK's world-class status in marine robotics. Other industries, such as the water, aquaculture and industrial waste, are also likely to benefit from these technologies.

The ISCF is a strategic element of the Government's Industrial Strategy that aims to ensure the UK continues to be one of the best places in the world for science and innovation.

Innovate UK and the Research Councils are taking a leading role in delivering this funding, operating across the country, to ensure the UK secures maximum benefit from science and innovation.

Notes for Editors:

Summaries of the EPSRC hubs:

National Centre for Nuclear Robotics - EP/R02572X/1

Led by: Professor Rustam Stolkin, University of Birmingham

ISCF funding: £11.3 million

Project partners: Universities of Bristol, Edinburgh, Essex, Lincoln, West of England, Lancaster University, Queen Mary University of London.

The National Centre for Nuclear Robotics will aim to develop advanced robotics and AI technologies for nuclear industry applications. These are required to help deal with nuclear waste, and alleviate the need to send humans into hazardous environments. These advances are also needed to maintain and monitor the UK's existing nuclear power stations, and facilitate the safe building and operation of new-build nuclear power-plants.

The Robotics and Artificial Intelligence for Nuclear (RAIN) - EP/R026084/1

Led by: Professor Barry Lennox, University of Manchester

ISCF funding: £11.9 million

Project partners: Universities of Oxford, Liverpool, Sheffield, Nottingham, Lancaster, Bristol and the UKAEA's RACE centre.

The Robotics and Artificial Intelligence for Nuclear (RAIN) Hub involves robotics and nuclear engineering experts across the UK and international partners from the US, Italy and Japan. It will undertake world-leading research and develop innovative technologies to address the challenges facing the nuclear industry, from decommissioning and waste management to fusion, plant life extension and new build.

Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets (ORCA) - EP/R026173/1

Led by: Professor David Lane, Heriot-Watt University

ISCF funding: £14.3 million

Project partners: Universities of Edinburgh, Oxford and Liverpool, Imperial College London

The ORCA Hub will develop robotics and AI technologies for use in extreme and unpredictable environments. The Hub will create robot-assisted asset inspection and maintenance technologies that are capable of making autonomous and semi-autonomous decisions and interventions across aerial, topside and marine domains.

Future AI and Robotics for SPACE (FAIR-SPACE) - EP/R026092/1

Led by: Professor Yang Gao, University of Surrey

ISCF funding: £6.7 million

Project partners: Imperial College London, Universities of Edinburgh, Liverpool, Salford, and Warwick

The aim of FAIR-SPACE 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 more complex tasks on long-duration missions with minimal dependence on ground crew. FAIR-SPACE is co-funded by the UK Space Agency.

Examples of successful projects from the Innovate UK collaborative R&D competition include:

  • Manufacturing in space - led by BAE Systems. The project will look at the technical feasibility of manufacturing in space by enabling the in-orbit manufacture of replacement parts and tools. It could eventually lead to the manufacture of large structures and potentially in the future the entire spacecraft. Awarded a grant of £516,024.
  • Robots under Ice - led by Thurn Group. Project is working on the use of autonomous submarines to determine ice hazard risks for shipping and energy installations in the Arctic. Awarded a grant of £146,566.
  • Autonomous offshore-wind farm inspection - led by Perceptual Robotics. A project to integrate the use of drones for inspection of offshore wind farms with the use of autonomous surface vessels - creating a system which will automatically deploy and recover the inspection drones. Awarded a grant of £989,925.

More details on NERC's marine sensors research projects:

Five NERC-funded research projects will develop new sensors capable of working within the ocean's extreme conditions. The sensors will be able to perform different functions whilst out at sea, helping researchers to answer questions about our changing oceans such as how carbon dioxide moves between air and water and measure the health of cold-water corals in marine protected areas. These successful grants will be over a maximum of four years with funding starting in 2017/18.

They are:

  • Nutrient sensors on autonomous vehicles, led by Professor Matt Mowlem at the National Oceanography Centre.
  • Calibrated pCO2 in air and surface ocean sensor for autonomous surface vehicles (CaPASOS), led by Professor Andrew Watson at the University of Exeter.
  • BioCam - Mapping of Benthic Biology, Geology and Ecology with Essential Ocean Variables, led by Dr Blair Thornton at the University of Southampton.
  • Carbonate Chemistry Autonomous Sensor System (CarCASS) led by Professor Matt Mowlem at the National Oceanography Centre.
  • Single Turnover Active Fluorometry of Enclosed Samples for Autonomous Phytoplankton Productivity (STAFES-APP), led by Professor Christopher Moore at the University of Southampton.

The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund

The ISCF was created to ensure that research and innovation takes centre stage in the government's Industrial Strategy, with investment earmarked for technologies where the UK can build on its world-leading strengths and help innovative businesses to tap into large and growing global markets, as well as the industries of the future.

The fund is being administered by Innovate UK and the Research Councils until the new body UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is formed in 2018. UKRI, under the leadership of its recently appointed Chief Executive Sir Mark Walport, will play a key role in strengthening the UK's competitiveness through the Industrial Strategy.

Innovate UK

Innovate UK helps businesses to identify the commercial potential in new technologies and turn them into the new products and services that will generate economic growth and increase productivity. For further information and to stay updated on our latest news visit the Innovate UK website, follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our YouTube channel.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

As the main funding agency for engineering and physical sciences research, our vision is for the UK to be the best place in the world to Research, Discover and Innovate.

By investing £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, we are building the knowledge and skills base needed to address the scientific and technological challenges facing the nation. Our portfolio covers a vast range of fields from healthcare technologies to structural engineering, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry. The research we fund has impact across all sectors. It provides a platform for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture.

We work collectively with our partners and other Research Councils on issues of common concern via UK Research and Innovation.

Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is a non-departmental public body. We receive around £330 million of annual funding from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Reference: PN 70-17