On Monday, the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) opens its £1m competition in robotics and autonomous systems (RAS). Ten days before, Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, announced a government investment of £35m to fund “centres of excellence” for RAS. Is there a flavour for investment in robotics brewing in the UK? Or is this just symptomatic of the wider global revival of interest in a field which, with technological advance and cost incentives, suddenly seems ripe for development?
“We are in a global race to develop new innovations,” Mr Willetts said, speaking about the launch of the TSB contest, “and this competition will give researchers the freedom to explore early-stage ideas which can be demonstrated to potential investors and turned into commercially successful products.”
Of course, Britain already has some robotic muscle, including expertise in software programming and data handling, from a range of sources, which is key to autonomous systems.
Mr Willetts also referred to the European Mars Rover, an autonomous vehicle which uses largely British technology, and is due to land in 2018.
But there is also a danger that, like the computing revolution of the second part of the 20th century, Britain will miss the boat.
This is something Tom Green raises in his article for Robotics Business Review. For computing, he believes it was 1949 whihc was the pivotal year:
“1949 is important because that’s the year that Britain announced its National Research and Development Corporation (NRDC), which eventually doled out a paltry $4M over three years on the nation’s computing efforts”, he writes. “Way too little, way too late. In comparison, America poured billions into computing. John Hendry’s, Innovating For Failure. Government Policy and the Early British Computer Industry (1989) details the sorry tale”.
So, in Green’s opinion, despite possessing a number of great computing minds - Alan Turing, Maurice Wilkes, Max Newman, among them - Britain failed to capitalise on its computing promise.
But is this likely to happen again? The Government’s RAS funding annnouncement is part of a larger investment of £600m in eight technologies in which Britain could be a world leader. However, fields such as Big Data have grabbed the lions share of the cash. So, is the field of robotics, ripe for more investment? Lets take a look.
In industry, for one, robotics is no longer a science-fiction fantasy. Engineering capabilities continue to grow alongside an increasing commercial demand for robots. In the next few years, robots are widely expected to replace humans in healthcare, manufacturing and the military.
Alongside this sit the two major macro-economic challenges which developed countries are currently facing: their own rapidly ageing populations and the cheap labour available in developing countries. These factors are putting domestic production capability under threat but RAS offers a lucrative solution to both.
Of course, industrial robots have been used in manufacturing for decades, but, with technological acceleration, interest, and investment, is picking up. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) records the highest number of industrial robots (150,000) sold worldwide in 2011. It’s a trend which looks set to continue, with Panasonic and Foxconn among the manufacturers with plans to replace workers with robots and, in Japan, one Panasonic factory has managed to utilise robots so effectively that one of its factories is capable of producing two million TV sets per month with just 15 employees.
However, the investment opportunity is not straightforward. According to some, including Peter Garnry, an equity strategist for Danish investment bank, Saxo.
“The obvious problem for investors is that there aren’t a lot of robot companies out there in the public market,” Mr Garnry told Modern Wealth Management. However, he does believe investors are about to see a tipping point: “We think it will be a major trend over the next two or three decades.”
IFR data corroborates this, pointing to a substantial upturn in robotics investment over the last few years with, overall, the global stock of operational industrial robots expected to increase to 1.3 million by the end of 2014, based on a growth rate of around six per cent per year.
Military robotics is one of the most active areas, but, here, opportunities for investors are scarce, with aerospace giants dominating the marketplace and absorbing start-ups.
In fact, it’s the healthcare sector which offers the most substantial opportunities for the expansion of robotics. Remote healthcare monitoring and predictive algorithms, that can diagnose early disease, are factors which have led to autonomous medical robotics developer, Aethon, raising $7.1 million in funding to support the expansion of its technology platform across new global markets.
Commercial robotics is also expected to experience growth, thanks largely to the success of technologies such as Microsoft’s Kinect, which is helping to reduce the cost of visual systems used in other devices.
And, for some companies, such as Amazon, the potential is obvious. Amazon’s recent purchase of robotics manufacturing firm Kiva, was geared towards increasing efficiency and is ideal for running warehouses, which is a fundamental part of the business.
So, although it’s with established companies that lucrative possibilities currently lie, SMEs involved or thinking of a future in RAS should take heart. There is a clear sense that the fledgling robotics industry is on the brink of something very exciting. This is reflected in market interest in established companies such as UK manufacturer, John Deere, with their automated lawnmowers, and American iRobot’s vacuum cleaners. iRobot has even recently branched out into the medical sphere with its products. As Peter Garnry says: “We are just seeing the beginnings of what will be something really huge and we will look back at 2010 to 2015 as the period where we saw the tipping point in robotics and it just exploded.”
The TSB's Robotics Competition opens on 4 February 2013. Presentation slides and a webinar recording of the competion's briefing event, held at London's Thistle hotel on 24th January 2013, can be found here, alongside material for the TSB's Enhancing Manufacturing Through Automation competiton.
The RAS Special Interest Group has been set up to support the emerging industrial RAS sector in the UK.