Manufacturing technology

Capturing the UK robotics opportunity

By: Professor David Lane, chairman of the RAS SIG group
Published: Wednesday, December 3, 2014 - 14:20 GMT Jump to Comments

We live in an era of unprecedented change. Technological advancement is a key driver of this change, and robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) are set to make a huge impact on cross-sector innovation and growth.

This change is already happening, and nations and industries helping to shape this movement will enjoy improved international competiveness, productivity and economic growth.

Earlier this year, RAS Special Interest Group (SIG) published a UK Strategy for Robotics, which outlined five key recommendations for action to improve the business prospects of the nation’s world-leading technical capabilities, in light of mounting competition from countries such as Japan, Korea and the United States.

The Strategy, which was developed for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, highlights that the UK is in a prime position to achieve a 10% share of a market estimated to be worth £70bn by 2020. Beyond this, the global economic impact of RAS in broader sectors is estimated at $1.9 – $6.4 trillion per year by 2025.

Since the Strategy was published the UK has made significant steps towards cultivating an optimum environment for the development of RAS technologies, as industry cohesion is enabling positive progress. So where are we likely to reap the greatest rewards of UK RAS technologies?

While it’s easy to assume that RAS technologies will only benefit technology companies, in reality the benefits could be felt far and wide. In the oil and gas sector for example, demand for RAS technologies originates from the increasingly harsh and challenging environments in which organisations must operate to meet demand.

RAS technologies can help to maintain the safety of human staff by using robots for tasks that are too dangerous. At the same time, RAS can increase the efficiency of existing operations and enable new capabilities.

In the nuclear industry, RAS has a role to play in decommissioning, re-commissioning and long-term waste management, with positive implications for both safety and cost. The total cost of nuclear decommissioning in the UK alone, mostly at Sellafield, is currently estimated at £60 billion. Owing to the high levels of radiation, all stages of the nuclear fission and fusion life cycle will require the use of advanced RAS tools and techniques.

In the pharmaceutical industry, RAS has a role in generating greater levels of data for drug development. The manufacturing of drugs could also benefit from RAS in terms of quality control and robustness, as well as potentially removing the risk of human contamination.

This is just the beginning. The RAS Strategy highlighted huge opportunities for the UK to exploit its robotics talent in transport, health, energy, retail and manufacturing. Acting as the arms and legs of big data operating in the Internet of Things, the role of RAS will be ubiquitous, playing a significant role in helping to fuel the UK’s Industrial Strategy.

If we’re to make real progress in the field, however, there are five core areas where the UK must take action. Firstly, the ‘Grand Challenges’ model, whereby teams compete to build technology demonstrators, should be used to develop RAS with a focus on real scenarios in vertical markets that stimulate collaboration, identify what is possible, and excite the public.

Investing in areas of emerging robotics growth, such as Edinburgh and Bristol, will also be important in fostering ‘clusters’ that will help stimulate innovation across industry, academia and finance, providing support networks throughout the RAS supply chain.

The Royal Academy of Engineering states that 1.28M new science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) professionals and technicians are required in the UK by 2020 – demand that is growing. Because robotics generates so much interest it has the potential to attract the brightest and best to study STEM subjects that are critical to a knowledge economy. All actions should be designed with skills development in mind; engaging with schools, apprentices, graduates and the general public.

Appropriate standards and regulation need to be established for RAS in the UK. One of the most effective ways of developing such regulation is through national robotics test beds, which will play a fundamental role in enabling RAS technologies to move from research and academia into the commercial marketplace.

Developing existing UK assets, such as decommissioned nuclear sites, farms, factories, mines and whole towns, for use as valuable robotics test beds would facilitate the real world demonstration of capability for RAS regulators, developers, investors, and potential customers.

Finally, a coordinated to approach stimulating the UK’s innovation pipeline will also be vital to securing a bright future for UK robotics. In Europe, a lot of growth is coming from SMEs and the UK could do more to generate and support start-ups with research, prototype fabrication, public funding, crowd funding, VC investment and more. The promotion of entrepreneurship is essential; people with ideas should have all the tools they need to commercialise them.

The technology transfer process from universities is also very important and could be improved. The Royal Academy of Engineering’s Enterprise Hub is an excellent example of a support mechanism that successfully connects academia and industry to accelerate promising UK start-ups – we need more of this for RAS innovators.

Industry also has a large role to play in supporting SMES too, in testing, incubating, making connections, and bringing in users. If there are users in the loop, investors will see that there are potential buyers.

The UK has a significant store of RAS talent in its research community, small businesses and large corporations. When combined with the right collaboration and investment, this ecosystem can build and feed an innovation pipeline that will realise new RAS products, services and businesses, positioning the UK at the forefront of the global RAS movement.

For further information download the full RAS Strategy here

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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