12 Dec 2023
by Rory Daniels

Event round-up - Future Visions: Autonomous Robots

The Future Visions series explores the next-generation technologies at the cutting edge of research and development that are set to disrupt industries, challenge incumbents, and act as a catalyst for growth. Attendees have the opportunity to learn about the latest advances in technology from those at the heart of its development, equipping them and their business to take action and realise the potential of future technologies.

Previous topics have included AI and semiconductors, metaverse, neuromorphic computing, and photonics.

On 11 December 2023, techUK hosted the latest webinar in our Future Visions series.

This webinar convened world-leading engineers, technologists and companies across the field of autonomous robotics to discuss the latest technological advancements, areas for Government support and opportunities for UK industry.

The panel included:

  • Dr Melissa Willis, Robotics Research Lead & Manufacturing Research Lead, Sellafield
  • Nicholas Zylberglajt, Co-Founder and CEO, Unmanned Life
  • Professor James Kell, Robotics Technical Director, Jacobs

The session was chaired by Rory Daniels, Programme Manager for Emerging Technologies, techUK

You can watch the full webinar here, or read our summary of the key insights below:

Please note that the below is a summary of the event, and readers are encouraged to watch the webinar to understand the full details of the discussion.

The session opened with introductions from our speakers.

  • Mel works for Sellafield, a nuclear site in West Cumbria, and focuses on decommissioning the site by taking advantage of robotics and autonomous systems. Mel serves as the interface between academia and Sellafield, whilst also working with the company's supply chain. Mel helps to develop low-TRL (technology readiness level) solutions to be used on the Sellafield site.
  • Nicholas leads Unmanned Life, an autonomous drones and robots company. Unmanned Life develops the leading software platform enabling drones and robots to deploy in various use cases, including security and reforestation. The company leverages AI to power its fleet and their investors includes Thales and Telefonica.
  • James works for Jacobs, a multinational engineering and consultancy firm based in the US. The company covers large infrastructure projects and notable projects include designing, building and maintaining the Kennedy Space Centre. The Robotics and Remote Handling team designs, develops and deploys robotic systems to inspect and maintain critical national infrastructure, with the aim of extending its natural life.

The panel discussion covered four central themes. These were context setting, Government support, industry use cases, and collaboration.

1. What are autonomous robots and what will they be capable of?

What are autonomous robots?

  • In contrast with automated robots such as those traditionally used in car factories, autonomous robots are based on a new type of intelligent technologies which make them more flexible, cost effective, and easy to deploy. This means that they can be integrated within other types of systems.
  • There is currently far more '24/7 supervised autonomy' than pure automation.

What are the UK's strengths and weaknesses in the field?

  • Whilst the UK is far down the list of robots per capita, this is a blunt and misleading metric (as are many robotics metrics, as robotics is more of an enabling technology than an industry in its own rite).
  • The UK very good at fairly customised things for one-off applications, particularly in dirty and dangerous environments.

What are autonomous robots potentially capable of?

  • Whilst many robots are still human-operated, including at Sellafield's nuclear decommissioning site, we remain limited by the number of hours that humans can work. Automating repetitive tasks though full autonomy frees up human operators to add value elsewhere. This doubling of the workforce could result in significant productivity gains, particularly for a company like Sellafield which currently has a decommissioning timeline of over 100 years. The time and cost savings are vast, particularly when the impact is scaled up across 16 other UK decommissioning sites and at a cost to taxpayers of £2-3bn per year at Sellafield alone.

What trends have begun to emerge in recent years?

  • We are increasingly seeing greater levels of adoption across sector boundaries. Technologists in the field should therefore share best practice to accelerate this trend and subsequently drive productivity growth
  • The importance of software has grown, and with this its role in enabling integration and interoperability. The UK has an edge here, particularly compared to leaders in robot construction such as Japan.
  • Cyber security is becoming more important as autonomous robotic systems become increasingly interconnected. Solutions include the use of private networks and inverted proxies.

2. How can Government best support UK industry to lead on the development of autonomous robots?

What are some examples of strategies that could be adopted?

  • Government should empower regulatory bodies to say 'yes', as often, technologies far outpace regulation.
  • Making strategy public can give early signals to regulators and prepare the supply chain for what's next. Regulators must be aware of and involved in the robotic industry's adoption of AI and cyber technologies from the very start
  • A robotics roadmap can signal key robotics challenges that Government or industry expect to face over the coming decades. This can afford potential partners more time and certainty to develop bespoke solutions, particularly when off-the-shelf solutions are not available. Sellafield has produced an internal version of such a roadmap.
  • The UK should expand upon the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF), which is delivered by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The introduction of the ISCF was huge for the UK's robotics community as provided funding for both industrial and academic projects and it started a network of university groups that still stands to this day (as UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems, or RAS). This focuses on areas of robotics that are difficult and different.
  • Government should re-state the importance of robotics as a technology. They did so under Boris Johnson's tenure as Prime Minister, however it has since become a component of AI.
  • A Government autonomous robotics strategy should contain sandboxes, broader deep tech funding, an emphasis upon Government as a customer, and smart regulation, all supported by an industrial strategy.

What examples of best practice could robotics stakeholders learn from?

  • CRADLE, which is a partnership funded by EPSRC and delivered by Jacobs and the University of Manchester, is a cross-sector robotics group containing regulatory sandboxing. The aim is to demonstrate new technologies, walk regulators through their operation, and explore the cross-pollination of industrial challenges.
  • RACO is a collaborative effort between Sellafield, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the UK Atomic Energy Authority, and the University of Manchester. This consortium looks to address aspects of robotics and AI that transfer across the nuclear industry. The new research facility builds mechanical and software confidence in systems by enabling stakeholders to shape the development of technologies, subsequently improving deployment rates.
  • The Robotics Growth Partnership (RGP) is currently putting together a strategy paper, due to be released early next year.

3. How can UK industry identify whether they should adopt autonomous robot technologies?

What should companies consider before exploring autonomous robots as a solution?

  • These systems are excellent as removing humans from harm (Sellafield utilises them for remote decommissioning on radioactive sites). Reductions in timelines and costs are a supplementary benefit. Sellafield now has a fleet of drones, removing the need to erect scaffolding for human operators.
  • Many environments, particularly those that are underwater, are relatively inaccessible for humans. Unmanned Life has deployed underwater drones to address this challenge.
  • There can be sustainability implications to the adoption of autonomous robots. For example, their high degree of accuracy can improve quality and reduce rejects or wasted resources.
  • Companies must have a willingness to deploy these technologies in what is typically a highly-regulated environment.
  • CRADLE is currently running industrial sprints. These are essentially free R&D as businesses can consult experts on the business case for deploying autonomous robots.
  • Ultimately, there still must be a business case. Unmanned Life consider a three-year return on investment (ROI) to be convincing.

4. Which stakeholders will play a vital role in making this happen and how may they do so?

  • Academia: There's a language difference between industry and academia which must be bridged. Non-technical presentations (containing images, not text) are preferred. For example, Jacobs makes excellent digital simulation videos depicting new robotic systems and how they could function. There must be strong academia-industry relationships built on trust.
  • Organisations such as techUK could add value in the sector by identifying companies with niche robotics capabilities on behalf of industry and academia, publicising successes in the robotics community (particularly for SMEs, which are the lifeblood of the sector), or by mapping and then sharing a network of networks.
  • Catapults play a key role in accelerating collaboration and innovation. Unmanned Life is part of the Connected Places Catapult's Marine Accelerator.

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Rory Daniels

Rory Daniels

Programme Manager, Emerging Technologies, techUK

Rory joined techUK in June 2023 after three years in the Civil Service on its Fast Stream leadership development programme.

During this time, Rory worked on the Government's response to Covid-19 (NHS Test & Trace), school funding strategy (Department for Education) and international climate and nature policy (Cabinet Office). He also tackled the social care crisis whilst on secondment to techUK's Health and Social Care programme in 2022.

Before this, Rory worked in the House of Commons and House of Lords alongside completing degrees in Political Economy and Global Politics.

Today, he is techUK's Programme Manager for Emerging Technologies, covering dozens of technologies including metaverse, drones, future materials, robotics, blockchain, space technologies, nanotechnology, gaming tech and Web3.0.

[email protected]

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