Vision outlined for future of robotics in the UK

Out-Law News | 02 Jul 2014 | 9:58 am | 2 min. read

UK laws should be relaxed to enable the testing of robotics and autonomous systems in real world environments, such as on farms or old nuclear power plant sites, according to a new report published by the Technology Strategy Board.

Farms, nuclear facilities, 'smart cities' and factories were among a number of "tangible RAS assets" identified in a new national strategy for robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) (23-page / 1.80MB PDF) that could be used as test grounds for assessing whether "RAS systems are able to make the right decisions, safely, effectively and efficiently in all likely circumstances".

Opening up real world environments for testing could help the UK become a global leader in robotics, the strategy said.

"In many markets RAS technology will face regulatory hurdles. In others, gaining social acceptance may be the key to early adoption," the strategy, produced by a special interest group set up by the Technology Strategy Board, said. "Such barriers are best overcome by engaging with the customer and exposing innovation to the rigours of the real world, but this can only take place in real environments; laboratories are not enough. Deployment test areas are the places in which we live and work; public roads, an actual airport, a working hospital, a farm, a production line, a refinery or nuclear facility."

"The UK can kick-start RAS by taking the lead and proactively opening up its regulations to allow RAS devices to operate in defined and controlled spaces. Such a proactive step would attract inward investment, gain valuable insights and attract the best in the world to the UK," the strategy said.

The strategy predicts that machines will be increasingly used to carry out tasks deemed too dangerous or difficult for humans to perform and that they will also in future be used to "enhance almost every aspect of our lives", from providing safer transport to helping with healthcare, such as for lifting patients, in surgery, for cleaning equipment and aiding rehabilitation.

RAS could also help make farming more efficient, allow for the mapping of the ocean floor, assist in the decommissioning of nuclear facilities and be used for inspecting and maintaining historic buildings without the need for scaffolding, it said.

The strategy called on the UK government to help ensure that efforts towards RAS innovations are coordinated. In particular it called for government, industry and funding bodies to ensure that there is targeted investment "to promote RAS innovation, technology transfer, technology development and address the skills gaps". Government also has a role to play in raising private sector investors' awareness of investment opportunities in RAS innovations, it added.

Among its other recommendations for government, the strategy paper called on the government to "encourage the use and further establishment of open RAS standards to enable integration, validation, scale benefits and technology re-use".

The report called on the UK to develop regional clusters with a "geographical concentration of high technology firms" to compete with some clusters elsewhere in the world and "act as hotbeds for generating new ideas, new applications and new companies to exploit them". Growing skills in these areas and providing employment tax breaks may be ways to encourage these regional clusters to emerge, it said.

"The nurturing and development of a vibrant and innovative RAS infrastructure is vital to the success of the RAS vision," the strategy paper said. "Skilled people are the foundation for everything this strategy hopes to achieve."