Should the UK be a robot testing ground?

Britain should be turned into a robotics test bed, with self-driving cars on roads, drones in the skies and robots roaming across decommissioned nuclear sites, a government report has suggested.

Should the UK be a robot testing ground?

The proposal is part of wider programme of investment into robotics and autonomous systems (RAS), unveiled today by Science Minister David Willetts, which aims to make the UK a destination for research and market testing for robots.

“Robots have often been positioned as a thing of the future, but today’s strategy launch emphasises the fact that they are very much of the here and now,” he said. “Technologies that have traditionally been the preserve of science fiction are becoming increasingly commonplace; from robotic limbs through to driverless cars.”

I think we are a long way off the Amazon book delivery. The whole area of liability is going to be important

The government is considering letting robots roam at the decommissioned nuclear plant at Sellafield, or the Boulby mine in Yorksire, according to a Guardian report.

As previously announced, Milton Keynes would become a testbed for self-driving cars, while drones would be permitted to take to the skies in limited areas – with the report suggesting they could be of use to deliver pesticides on farms, rather than delivering Amazon orders over cities, as the firm has planned.

“Shifting a hardback Harry Potter volume will require a fair amount of power, and that, if it crashed or went awry, could seriously harm people,” said Willetts, according to the Guardian. “I think we are a long way off the Amazon book delivery. The whole area of liability is going to be important.”

Flexible laws

As well as giving developers space to test their creations, the UK also needs to develop a “flexible legal and regulatory environment”.

The report called for “subtle adjustments” to laws, regulations and standards, saying that this would help attract development of robotics to the UK. For example, allowing self-driving cars to be tested on public roads could help bring them to market sooner.

“Discussions with market regulators and the UK government show that the UK has the will and flexibility to explore these issues in a pragmatic manner,” the report said. “Demonstrating benefit will be an essential component of delivering innovation, especially where new risks are not directly comparable with current practices.”

The plans also detail “Grand Challenges” – robot competitions to not only spur innovation but “excite the public”.

The report noted that UK attitudes towards robots and autonomous systems were on par with the rest of Europe, with people focused on their use in space and military, but fewer aware of their use in healthcare or education.

Suggesting that “far-fetched” films and novels skew people’s opinions about the use of robots, the report said that testing such devices in public will help people better understand them – and hopefully spur interest in the subject for students.

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