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Robotics set to ‘revolutionise the UK economy in the next 20 years’

Britain’s desire to be at the forefront of robotics research has been reinforced by universities minister David Willetts, who saw world-leading technology when he visited the Bristol Robotics Lab Monday 12th November 2012. He wanted to see first-hand the cutting-edge technology being developed at the BRL, which is the largest robotics lab of its type in the UK and a joint collaboration between the University of Bristol and UWE Bristol.

The visit followed the Government’s identification of robotics and autonomous systems as one of eight ‘future technologies’ – important areas in which it hopes Britain can capitalise on current expertise to become world-leaders. In his speech to the Royal Society on the 9th November, Chancellor George Osborne outlined his vision for science in the UK and predicted that robotics has the scope to revolutionise the economy and society over the next 20 years, giving the BRL as an example of where such innovative research is taking place into a wide range of areas.

Mr Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science, was shown projects which could revolutionise the medical industry - from robots which might one day be able to carry out surgery to groundbreaking work to develop tactile robots which have the potential to feel what’s happening inside someone’s body.

He also met staff and students who have worked with local schools to excite pupils about robotics, supporting the Government’s desire to get more youngsters interested in STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths.

Among those he met was former UWE Bristol student Zan Nadeem, who established start-up business Restech after graduating with a first class BSc in Robotics. Restech aims to be the leading provider of after-school robotics clubs and workshops for primary and secondary schools, initially in Bristol.

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Here is what Chancellor George Osborne said robotics and autonomous systems:

"And we should work on Robotics and Autonomous Systems – a seventh critical technology.

Robots acting independently of human control – which can learn, adapt and take decisions – will revolutionise our economy and society over the next 20 years.

Our wider manufacturing industry has so far been a slow adopter of industrial robotics – the UK has 25 robots per 10,000 employees in non-automotive sectors; whilst Japan leads the world with 235 robots per 10,000 employees.

Our researchers have some distinctive leads which we can exploit.

NASA’s Mars Rover vehicle is largely controlled from Earth with a 7 minute delay as instructions travel to Mars. The European Mars Rover vehicle, due to land in 2018, is more autonomous and is mainly British technology.

In the Bristol Robotics Laboratory they are developing self-powering robots which collect dead flies and other detritus and place it in a back pack container of bacteria which converts this into electric power.

The UK can lead in developing these technologies for sectors as diverse as defence, healthcare, manufacturing, transport, entertainment and education.

Here are some examples. One of the world’s first fully autonomous cars has been developed at Oxford with close involvement of the car industry.

At the University of Hertfordshire they are making breakthroughs in helping profoundly autistic children who find it easier to interact with a humanoid robot than a human.

The market for medical robotics is growing around 50% annually worldwide. The UK has a strong track record in pioneering medical and surgical robotics.

They can enable operations to be done remotely.

They can replace hands and arms. Exo-skeletons give movement for severely disabled people with controls linked directly to the brain.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council funds some of this research.

It is also a key strand of the Technology Strategy Board’s support for advanced manufacturing.

There is a small budget to encourage SMEs to shift to robotic manufacturing techniques but they need to be able to try out these techniques at demonstration facilities.

David Willetts has convened a series of meetings so academia and industry and government can develop a strategy for future investment decisions."

And to recap the eight technologies the Chancellor George Osborne challenged the scientific community of Britain to lead the world in, with Government support:

  • The Big Data Revolution and energy efficient computing
  • Synthetic Biology
  • Regenerative Medicine
  • Agri-Science
  • Energy Storage
  • Advanced Materials
  • Robotics and Autonomous Systems
  • Satellites and commercial applications of Space
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