Predictions - The future of robotics


In the future, robots with artificial intelligence will help make life easier for all of us – doing our dull, dirty, difficult jobs, and tackling tasks we simply couldn’t do ourselves.

One of the key areas where we’ll look to robots will be extreme environments where it’s dangerous or impossible for humans to go.  Several projects recently received funding from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund as part of the government’s £93 million programme for robotics and AI in extreme environments.

The programme aims to develop robotic solutions in industries such as off-shore and nuclear energy, space and deep mining, to increase productivity and open up new cross-disciplinary opportunities.

As part of this programme Innovate UK is funding £51m of collaborative R&D and demonstrator projects.

One of the projects includes a look at the technical feasibility of manufacturing in space by enabling the in-orbit manufacture of replacement parts and tools for aircraft; meanwhile robots under ice focuses on the use of autonomous submarines to determine ice hazard risks for shipping and energy installations in the arctic.

Another project will integrate the use of drones for inspection of offshore wind farms with the use of autonomous surface vessels, creating a system which will automatically deploy and recover the inspection drones.

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Future food

AI equipped machines will also play a big part in the future of agriculture, reducing food production costs and improving land use. With an estimated 60% more food needed by 2050, the UK government is investing £90m to transform food production. This will include funding for demonstrator projects that show how innovative agri-tech ideas can be applied in the real world.

In projects funded by Innovate UK, researchers have already created an autonomous strawberry picker that does the job twice as fast as humans, and an entire barley crop has been planted, tended and harvested by robots.

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In future, robots or drones will precisely remove weeds or target them with pesticide, helping reduce chemical use by up to 90%, while tiny sensors could monitor crop growth and alert farmers to problems, or let them know the best time to harvest.

Getting food to consumers will be greener, cheaper and easier, thanks to driverless vehicles. Autonomous delivery systems to the home will make on-demand deliveries much more economically viable.  And because people will only order what they need, when they need it, food waste and the excess packaging associated with bulk buying in supermarkets will be drastically reduced.

Driverless cars are already making the headlines, with government-led investment exceeding £239m (including company investment and grants) to fund driverless car projects across the UK.

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Smarter energy

In the future, our energy will be generated almost entirely from low-cost, renewable resources, built and maintained in remote locations by robotic systems.

Unmanned ships will construct wind turbines while small drones monitor the installation from every angle, taking measurements and feeding the information back to engineers who will be co-ordinating the process from a control centre.

Autonomous scouts will work in teams, exploring the earth to harvest energy, finding sources of renewable energy and natural resources, as well as monitoring bio-diversity and climate.

Robots are already being used to monitor the safety of oil and gas pipelines: smart pigs carry out internal, in-service pipeline inspection, while research by the University of Aberdeen recommends the use of aerial drones to monitor large and difficult to reach areas, helping overcome issues of restricted access.

Robots could even clean up waste, too – such as plastics from our oceans, and other pollutants. A team at the University of Bristol has already invented a row-bot that can convert dirty water into electricity to power its own movement.

Scientists predict that the row-bot could help clean up contaminants such as oil spills, as well as harmful algal blooms. They may also help eradicate waterborne diseases – the world’s number one killer of children under 5 years old.

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Working together

Robotics and AI look set to change many things for the better. But with robots taking over so many of the tasks that were traditionally done by humans, it’s natural to wonder whether they will also be stealing our jobs.

It’s probably more helpful to think in terms of the transformative effect of technology. From the invention of the printing press to the advent of the combustion engine, technology has enabled all the key stages of human progress, and the so-called fourth industrial revolution will be no different.

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So while some jobs may gradually disappear, this won’t happen overnight, and there will be opportunities for new career choices that we probably can’t even imagine now – provided we continuously evolve our STEM education curriculum at a pace that ensures the skills demanded in industry can be met by the future workforce.

When humans and AI powered systems work together they are most effective – the symbiosis of people and machines, using human imagination, creativity and personality, but combined with the precision, strength, reliability and automation of robotic systems, will see humans fully empowered to take on the tasks we do best.

Technologies that simplify the control of robots from anywhere will allow many more physical jobs to be carried out remotely, so that people can work much more flexibly and in more comfortable conditions.

So in future, while we’ll see some jobs replaced entirely by machines, most will be augmented by them to make our jobs safer, more flexible and more interesting. This is good news for everyone – the increased productivity of a workforce where human and machine skills are combined will help grow economies, and opportunities, worldwide.


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