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UK 'could become a leader' in niche robot technologies

11 July, 2014

A group of experts charged with drawing up a national strategy for robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) in the UK has produced a report arguing that, through a co-ordinated approach and targeted investment, the UK could become a global leader in this area.

In 2012, the UK government identified RAS as one of eight “great technologies” that could support its strategy to rebalance the UK economy and create jobs and growth. In 2013, the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) created a RAS special interest group (SIG) to:

♦  identify the opportunities for RAS in the UK;

♦  bring together industrialists, researchers and civil servants; and to

♦  produce a national strategy to align the nation’s RAS efforts and to guide Government strategy.

The SIG has now produced a report, called RAS 2020, that argues that the UK is “uniquely positioned” to take advantage of an aligned and market-oriented approach to RAS that builds on the strengths and resources in the UK economy.

Rather than working on general-purpose industrial robots, the SIG suggests that the UK should focus on becoming a global leader in niche areas such as systems for decommissioning nuclear plants, autonomous subsea vehicles, and tiny drones that carry sensors for applications such as agricultural monitoring.

The RAS 2020 report suggests strategies for making the UK a leader in robotic and autonomous systems

“By acting soon, decisively and in concert, we have the opportunity to capture the early-mover advantage and establish the UK as a leader in the implementation of RAS technology,” the report suggests. “This will be achieved by developing a market-focused approach, building sustainable value chains that will support the introduction of RAS technologies into multiple new markets, while also invigorating existing markets with disruptive and economically advantageous products.

“Such an approach,” it adds, “will build on UK strengths in the fields of ICT, big data and systems engineering as well as UK-specific market opportunities in areas such as energy, legacy decommissioning and healthcare. Public intervention will be particularly useful in areas such as RAS-appropriate legislation and standards as well as the use of public assets to assist the transition of new products into viable commercial companies. In particular, a joined-up RAS strategy will help build an effective RAS ecosystem including skills, finance, research, innovation and regulation and including both demand and supply chain components.

The report also says that the UK must also capitalise on its participation in the EU’s robotics research and innovation programme – the world’s largest civilian robotics programme, worth £1.6bn over seven years, with £560m being funded directly by the European Commission. “By a careful mix of influence, alignment and differentiation, the UK stands to gain a major boost that can amplify the effects of a coordinated RAS strategy,” the report states.

The SIG suggests that the UK should focus on developing and demonstrating RAS technologies in real situations. The strategy should identify and invest in real-world RAS assets that will be used to host a series of competitions in different sectors and applications. The aim is to expose RAS technology to the rigours of real environments; to identify technical strengths and weaknesses, and to explore commercial opportunities.

Where appropriate, these assets and challenges will span sectors, raising awareness of different approaches to generic problems. This will also increase the early-stage market size, which is critical to allow SMEs to scale, the SIG says.

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