The first in our series of Innovate UK podcasts looks at robotics and AI in extreme environments.
The increasing amount of work that needs to be done in extreme environments like deep mining, nuclear decommissioning and offshore energy means there are more and more applications for robotics and AI. Wherever there’s an economic need but it’s dangerous or impossible for people to work, there’s a place for robotics.
Solving all these problems presents business opportunities.
Current state of play for robotics in extreme environments
In nuclear decommissioning the main focus is power stations that are still operational, but there will also be a need to decommission those that preceded them, and the legacy sites that saw the early development of nuclear power and weapons.
Most of the surveys to examine the characterisation of the land, buildings and equipment, before deciding what to do with them, are currently done by people. Creating robots that can do these exacting tasks successfully is a challenge we need to address.
In deep sea operations, robots and humans are already working together to solve a lot of the problems that have traditionally been faced by humans in the extremely harsh environment, where changes in pressure can actually be more challenging than in space.
Mapping the sea bed is crucial to industries like offshore energy, and an underwater map of the entire UK coast would be hugely beneficial to many sectors.
How AI will change robotics for the better
We need to change the way we think of robotics. They are not humanoids. Their benefit is in what they do, rather than what they are – such as when they’re inside a household appliance, making it do its job better.
But while they may not resemble humans, robots with AI are the future.
Most robotics are currently tethered to humans, but if a robot has AI and can make its own decisions, it has more freedom to operate. For example, if a robot on the sea bed could assess its own condition and take the necessary steps to rectify a problem, it would become far more valuable in terms of operational efficiency.
Autonomous vehicles and drone camera solutions will make robotics essential to the functioning of our daily lives in fundamental areas like energy and communications.
Underwater repairs and inspections that could quite literally keep the internet up will be carried out by autonomous vehicles in future, maintaining the thousands of miles of fibre optic cables under our oceans.
And crucial unexploded ordnance surveys (UXO) will enable more wind farms to be developed by ensuring that the turbines can be safely connected by cables to the mainland, avoiding the thousands of tonnes of munitions dumped on the sea bed as a result of the last two world wars.
Commercial opportunities for robotics
There are definitely some exciting opportunities for enterprising businesses.
For example, the oil and gas industry has targets to reduce marine inspection costs, so marine robotics systems could be appealing to senior executives in offshore industries. In the nuclear sector there is less of a short-term need, but decommissioning solutions developed for the UK nuclear sector could be deployed worldwide.
It’s important for SMEs trying to address tech shortfalls to ensure their solution answers a real user need and is part of a value chain, and this is where collaboration is key. Innovate UK’s Safe Living Laboratory programme is designed to help with this, allowing companies to test their products in a real world environment which helps accelerate development.
Will robots replace us in the workplace?
It’s a question that virtually everyone asks, but the answer isn’t straightforward. All major technological advances have impacted on the jobs we do and the way we work. And while some jobs may disappear, others will still be in demand (for example, there will probably always be a need for divers), while we’ll need creativity in engineering and specialist skills to provide human input throughout the robotics and AI world.
So we can expect jobs to change and skills to evolve.
However we need a plan in place so that people know how to do these new jobs. We’re already beginning to see robotics and machine learning taught in schools, and this will have a huge impact on the skills in the workforce in ten years’ time.
What about 100 years from now?
The future will see us exploring ice-covered planets like Europa, whose frozen oceans are of great interest to scientists keen to discover signs of life there. But here on earth, technologies developed in the space sector are already applicable to us in our everyday lives - for example the GPS receivers in your mobile phone or sat nav that help get you from A to B.
And while space missions will rely on robots, we may also be about to use these highly autonomous robots to help us with some of the big problems we’re facing on our own planet.
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