Robot tests on nuclear sites as UK ramps up research

Image source, Darpa
Image caption,
The UK will copy US Grand Challenges which focus research efforts on tough tasks

Robots could soon be roaming over decommissioned nuclear sites and abandoned coal mines in the UK to test their ability to work autonomously.

The proposal to create the test sites is one strand of a broad plan that seeks to co-ordinate UK robot research.

Drafted by the Technology Strategy Board, it calls for "grand challenges" which see researchers compete to make robots that complete specific tasks.

The UK could lead the world in robots, said the authors behind the plan.

Cash call

The proposals come as Science Minister David Willetts unveils how the Technology Strategy Board will spend the £400m in funds allocated to it over the next year. Some of that cash is already earmarked for research on robotics.

"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," Mr Willetts is expected to say during a speech on 1 July.

The board wants the UK to do more for robotics by implementing the recommendations on test sites and challenges and by putting cash into geographical areas, such as Bristol and Edinburgh, already known for their academic expertise with robots.

"We need to provide a business environment in the UK that is geared towards helping robotic and autonomous technologies out of the lab and into the marketplace," said Prof David Lane of Heriot-Watt University who headed the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Special Interest Group at the TSB which drew up the plan.

Driverless cars, rail systems that can monitor and repair track by themselves, technologies that assist elderly people, and nuclear plant safety monitors were all examples of leading British robot technology, said Prof Lane.

"The UK has an exceptional heritage in many of the industries where robotics can be most useful," he said.

"We need to act quickly if we don't want to be left behind," he added. "With the right course of action, we believe the UK could achieve 10% of the global market share by 2025."

The plan was "great news" said robotics expert Prof Noel Sharkey from the University of Sheffield.

"The UK is the lowest user of industrial robotics in the technically developed nations of Europe - well behind Spain and Italy," he said. "We have a lot of robotics talent in our universities with enormous potential to bring the UK to hi-tech glory.

"It is a massive market and we have already slipped well behind," he said.