How the UK can pioneer the robots of the future

If there’s one area of technology that’s always intrigued humans, it’s robotics. From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to HBO’s Westworld, human-like machines have been a consistent figure in modern culture. Fears about humanity’s demise at the hands of our creations persist, but the reality is often closer to theatre props than RoboCop.

The robotics market itself is extremely lucrative. According to tech research company IDC, the global industry has grown by 17% annually, and it will be worth a staggering $135 billion by 2019. And despite America and many Asian countries making up a large portion of this sector, there’s huge potential for the UK to become a pioneer in the robotics world.

In fact, according to the UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems Special Interest Group, the UK could take a 10% market share of the global robotics industry within the next few years. As well as this, the UK government recently made a pledge to set up a £270 million fund to accelerate research in areas such as robotics systems, driverless cars and biotech.

Pioneering bionic limbs

Bionics is one of the fastest-growing areas of robotics, focusing on the development of mechanical systems that can replicate living beings or parts of living beings. In particular, bionic technology is making big waves in the field of healthcare.

Companies are developing bionic limbs and other body parts at a rapid rate, and Open Bionics is one of the British companies pioneering such technology. It uses 3D body scanning and printing to create bionic hands that are advanced, lightweight, stylish and low-cost for people who have lost limbs at birth or in accidents.uk_robotics_2

Although the company was only set up in 2014, it’s already achieved a great deal. As well as receiving funding from the Nominet Trust and the UAE, it’s won international accolades such as the Robotics for Good Award in Dubai and has been selected to represent the best of UK startups in the Startup World Cup in San Francisco next month.

“The UK is fast becoming a leading figure in the robotics industry”

Samantha Payne, CEO of Open Bionics, says she’s proud that her company is helping to put the UK robotics industry on the map and to be helping vulnerable people at the same time. “The UK is fast becoming a leading figure in the robotics industry. We feel honoured to play a smart part of the UK robotics story on the world stage. We set out to create  groundbreaking technology at a low cost, so that everyone can access it,” she says.  

“There are over two million hand amputees globally who could benefit from low-cost, technologically advanced robotic hands, and developments in the UK robotics market will only create more opportunities for these people to access the tech they need.”

Making nature-like robots

Animal Dynamics is another UK-based company developing pioneering robotic technology. Launched in January 2015, the firm is working on a range of sophisticated robotic products inspired by nature. Its most advanced project is Skeeter, a mini-drone based on the biology of the dragonfly.

Professor Adrian Thomas, an expert in biomechanics at the University of Oxford, has found that dragonflies have an incredibly robust frame for flying in a plethora of conditions. For instance, one breed is able to fly non-stop from Africa to India, and the company believed that it could applied to a very specific challenge that faced the Ministry of Defence.

Namely, this was building mini-drones that could operate in blustery wind conditions. Skeeter has now received £1.5 million of investment from the MOD. Alex Caccia, co-founder and CEO of Animal Dynamics, says his company is on a mission to create robots that are as capable and efficient as natural systems.

“At Animal Dynamics, we’re focused on the intriguing way animal movement has evolved to develop much more efficient ways to move than conventionally engineered solutions. As such we are interested in how flapping wings outperform rotors, the movement of a fish tail outperforms a water-churning propeller, and how efficient legged movement can do better than a wheel,” he tells me.

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Caccia says that beefing up robots with state-of-the-art processors and sensors isn’t enough anymore. He believes that by focusing on natural movement, it’s possible to create more efficient and powerful systems. “This inevitably leads to robotics, as the moment you have made something fly, swim or walk, it needs to be given a task; if it can make decisions, the capabilities are all the higher.  The conventional approach to robotic systems is to overload on computational power, and skimp on sensors,” he continues.

“Natural systems do the opposite, which is at the heart of our research efforts. We’re exploring systems that are efficient in terms of both movement and computational power. We think this is a fundamentally disruptive approach that brings robotics closer to natural systems, with some very interesting consequences.”

Funding robotics startups

With a new wave of companies developing and distributing highly capable robots, funding is important. Britbots, launched in December 2016, is the first robotics seed fund to open in the UK. Still in its early stages, the focus of the organisation is to help people make targeted investments in promising British robotics startups.

Dominic Keen, the founder and CEO of the fund, tells me that he set up the organisation in a bid to accelerate the growth of Britain’s flourishing robotics startup scene. He believes that the next few decades will see major advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems, and that the UK can become a catalyst for these technologies.  

“Britbots was established to help the UK robotics startup scene flourish. The forthcoming decade will see tremendous advances in autonomous systems and artificial-intelligence technology, opening the door for British robotics companies to build disruptive new products,” he says.

“Rapid falls in the cost of low-volume hardware and [the] widespread availability of software components have made it possible for lean startups to participate in this market. Britbots looks to support ambitious entrepreneurs by investing money and expertise to help improve their robot concepts and find new opportunities for commercialisation. At any one time we work with dozens of early-stage robotics businesses, finding ways to enhance their growth prospects.”robot_3

Keen certain talks the talk, but the UK robotics startup scene still has a way to go. Research carried out by Redwood Software along with the Centre for Economic and Business Research suggests that the UK is lagging behind US, Germany, Japan and South Korea in robotics investment. This aside, Keen believes that things will change over the next few years and that his fund will help make this possible.

“Around the country, we’re seeing a Cambrian explosion of exciting startups with robotic solutions targeting an enormous variety of sectors and applications in areas such as agriculture, logistics, facilities management, healthcare and domestic tasks, to name but a few. Given the expanding talent pool based here, it’s genuinely the case that the UK can become a global hotspot for robotics innovation.”

It’s crucial that there’s enough homegrown talent

Despite Keen’s positive stance here, there are still plenty of challenges ahead. If the industry is to be sustained in the future, then it’s crucial that there’s enough homegrown talent. There are, however, fears that Brexit will hinder this process. A study published by the Institute of Directors in December 2016 found that four in ten British businesses worry there’ll be skills shortages when the UK leaves the EU. Only time will tell how big a problem this becomes, but it’s certainly something that needs to be considered.

There’s no denying that the robotics industry is still in its nascent stages. Most of the world’s functioning robots are merely test models to demonstrate the potential of robotics, but things are moving fast. We’ll more than likely see advancements made in the coming years and, by coupling talent with competitive funding, the UK is well positioned to pioneer future robotics.

Images: Open Bionics, Animal Dynamics

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