An ambitious project to map the UK’s Knowledge Landscape is being undertaken by the Council for Science and Technology (CST). Part of the strategy has been a series of seminars, including one focussed on the strengths, weaknesses and future of the UK’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) R&D.
RAS forms one of the pillars of the UK government’s strategic Eight Great Technologies - areas where it’s believed that, under the right conditions, the country can excel.
In order for this field to reach its full potential, CST is mapping the research capability and knowledge provision of the country’s academic institutions, industry, charities and others, to provide decision makers with a clearer picture of the whole landscape and enable better strategic decisions to be made. The work of the RAS Special Interest Group (RAS SIG) and the Knowledge Transfer Network (The KTN) features in the accompanying infrastructure document
which broadly maps the RAS Landscape.
The strengths and weaknesses of the UK’s RAS research, its capability and future concerns was the focus of a seminar took place last month.
The panel first considered that the UK’s strengths: a strong customer base for robotics R&D; the high quality and interdisciplinary nature of the work; the existence of high quality robotics clusters and good communication between academia, government and industry. Experts made special reference to the work of RAS SIG in bringing about this later development.
But weaknesses were also apparent, including: gaps in funding structures, which are particularly challenging due to the interdisciplinary nature of UK research; poor supply chains due, in part, to fewer SMEs in this sector compared to other countries and inadequate understanding, by researchers, of enabling technologies and the challenges faced by industry.
A major focus was the need for the right skills mix as many companies presently have to hire engineers abroad (from India, Canada, the US and the wider EU) so it’s crucial to provide early inspiration for young people about the opportunities robotics affords very early in their educational careers, to work with teachers, and to ensure that good quality hardware is available.
At University level, the need to teach new ideas as soon as they emerge was highlighted, as well as more input from industry, better use of specific challenges and increased visibility of RAS SIG strategy so that students gain a better understanding of what’s possible in the field.
Demonstrators were also the subject of discussion: verification, validation and certification centres are all essential in taking ideas to market, although they have different uses depending on the technology's application. In the aerospace industry for instance, they’re important for gaining trust.
The UK, and the EU as a whole, have few centres equivalent to the US National Institutes for Standards in Technology (NIST), whose mission is to promote US innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science. The panel considered that the establishment of similar UK-based centres may allow more testing of products and help more products getting to market. But regulatory bodies must also collaborate to reduce multiple approval processes.
Ensuring these factors were addressed would attract more investment for UK robotics, the panel believed. Although, there were also a number of issues o consider for the future:
• The reliance on EU funding for RAS research. At present, approximately eighty per cent of RAS research is EU funded. If this funding stream was disrupted then RAS industry and research in the UK may suffer as a consequence.
• Ensuring that government is an intelligent customer for RAS research and understands where available funding should be concentrated: industry and academia have a role to play in communicating clearly what the potential offerings of this research are. The RAS strategy is an excellent starting point.
• Public perceptions of RAS and the influence of science fiction and film on these ideas: in particular, there is a perception that greater automation will lead to greater unemployment and the need for economic measures to offset fewer workers in a ‘Second Machine Age’. Some of these concerns may dissipate as younger generations take over and social attitudes change, some may need to be addressed through thoughtful public engagement.
• An ageing society that brings with it both threats and opportunities. There is likely to be an increasing need for assistive technologies. Regulation will play a critical role in determining the speed with which this need is met. Medical devices are (rightly) strictly regulated: within this framework we need to ensure that new technology can be adequately tested in an agile way to best enable it to get to market.
And the work continues. In order to build a bigger picture, the CST needs your help and your data to crowdsource. With this in mind, it has produced the UK Knowledge Landscape Tool.
The aim is to analyse as large a dataset as possible in order to produce taxonomies and more detailed maps of UK expertise - the disciplines, dependencies and key infrastructures that make up modern research.