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Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund: developing robots for extreme and hazardous environments

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Are robots really on the rise and threatening to take over?

Some people will have you believe that robots will replace huge numbers of traditional jobs currently done by humans over the next few decades. That we’ll effectively be made redundant by some tangled anthropomorphic mass of motors, servos and sensors, and quasi-intelligent autonomous code that lacks an off button or a personality.

I think different, fortunately!

It is true that jobs, which are repetitive or don’t need complex manual handling, can be managed today by a robot. That tends to be on a guarded factory production line, where little deviation is expected and simple yes/no - go/stop decisions are ok. The business case is built on productivity gains.

Where the future growth opportunities lie - and where the technology challenges are longer term and risky – is in the free roaming, unguarded, working among, with and for us robot.

Think about it - having only autonomous cars on the road isn’t the problem. The problem is me and you being behind the wheel at the same time, where random actions and unpredictable behaviours clash with Boolean logic of right and wrong, not maybe.

The robotics challenge

Robotic hand machine tool at industrial manufacture factory

So, when we made the case for Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund investment in robotics and artificial intelligence (RAI), one of the prime candidate areas was extreme and hazardous environments. Not only is it one of the places cutting-edge robotic technologies are being developed, it’s a place where the UK already plays well, and where the opportunity to grow and dominate international markets exists.

Areas such as nuclear decommissioning, mining, oil and gas and space have well known, seemingly intractable and common problems, to which robotic technology could be applied. Solutions can and will come from all parts of the economy – that’s how innovation works – using cross sector knowledge and skills solve difficult problems.

Improving safety, building the economy

Satellite in space orbiting the Earth

There is not only a safety case to be made, but a huge economic one:

  • a 2013 estimate by the UK's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority predicted costs of at least £100 billion to decommission the UK’s existing nuclear sites
  • there are over 450 operational satellites orbiting Earth. Every single one of them is going to run out of fuel and be thrown away because that’s the way it was designed. If a robot can go up and refuel it, you wouldn't have to throw it away. NASA has a programme to advance the state of robotic servicing technology to enable the routine servicing of satellites that were not designed with servicing in mind. Why can’t we do the same?

Get funding to develop robotic technologies

The good news is our call to action was looked upon favourably. We have £92 million of funding to help industry, with academia, to solve these problems over the next 4 years.

Innovate UK and the Research Councils will be running a joint programme to accelerate developments in RAI, starting with the launch of both a demonstrator programme and a collaborative research and development competition on 12 June 2017. I would encourage you to come and find out how you can get involved.

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  1. Comment by Melanie Brownridge posted on

    The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and its estate welcome cross sector knowledge in robotics and autonomous systems to solve our difficult problems in cleaning up the UK’s nuclear legacy.

    NDA’s Research Board recently recommended that robots, as well as direct operator control systems, could provide significant benefits to the waste and decommissioning sector and its challenges.

    We’ve been using robotics and autonomous systems to retrieve materials from Sellafield ponds and are developing systems for Sellafield silos and the Dounreay shaft. We know there’s still more we could do with new technology.

    For background, read these posts:

    And come meet us and find out more at our Innovation Zone at the NDA Estate Supply Chain Event on 2 November in Manchester:

  2. Comment by Melanie Brownridge posted on

    And.....our recent competition in collaboration with Innovate UK targeted the area of robotics and autonomous systems. We’ll be announcing the successful projects soon!

    Please sign up to our e-bulletin if you'd like to keep up to date: