Bristol opens new university robotics labratory

10 May 2012
by Abi Grogan
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Interior of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, which opened in May 2012

The facility is the largest of its type in the UK and home to a community of 70 academics and businesses.

Bristol University and University of West England announce the opening of their new robotics lab today.

A new £1.65million robotics laboratory was opened today in Bristol as a resource for a joint research partnership between two leading South West Universities. The 2,400 sqm Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) opened by David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities and Science, is situated on the University of West England (UWE) Campus in Bristol and will provide space for over 40 robotics and automation projects conducted by students and researchers at both UWE and Bristol University.


The facility is the largest of its type in the UK and home to a community of 70 academics and businesses who are leading current thinking in robotics, intelligent autonomous systems and bio-engineering.  Cutting-edge projects include studies into haptic-integrated robotics, assisted living, soft robotics and microbial fuel cell engineering.


The new space, which includes six laboratories and two flying arenas, allows a number of professional disciplines combine research practices in an environment that will benefit both academic and commercial research into robotics and automation. Professor Sarah Baillie, Professor of Veterinary Education, is using the new lab to commercialise a haptic reality simulator, developed for use as a learning tool to practice the internal examination of cows (listen to our interview with her Sarah Baillie). The facility also houses an autonomous energy project called Ecobot, from which microbial fuel cells are being developed to extract electrical energy from refined foods such as sugar, and from unrefined foods such as insects and fruit.


Other projects include research into untraditional areas of robotics such as soft robotics, aiming to harness the power of smart materials coupled with automation, to develop artificial muscles and organisms to replace damaged human tissue. Jonathon Rossiter, Senior Lecturer at UWE, who is leading one such project (listen to our interview with Jonathon Rossiter) says the new facility allows his students to dedicate resources to the highly sophisticated and unconventional technology of soft robotics.


“We are keen move away from traditional robotics. Most robots have got motors and gears, and rigid bodies. This is great for many industries, for example industrial applications, but if human tissue is interacting with them we don’t want them to be rigid and hard as it could actually cause damage. In regards to human beings interacting with robots, soft robotics is the direction we want to go.”


It is hoped that the facility will help to address the skills shortage in the engineering sector, by inspiring students to choose STEM subjects as a stimulating degree choice.  “We have to face that there is still an attitude towards engineering, not quite of stigma, but one that means it is still difficult to get young people into engineering.” Says Professor Chris Melhuish, Director of BRL. “Our experience is that prospective students come to see this facility and think it is quite cool, and we hope the lab can be part of some inspiration for encouraging young people into engineering.”


“Robotics has a whole host of everyday applications, from helping our aging population to improving manufacturing processes. Bristol Robotics Laboratory will bring together the best expertise from industry and the academic community to spearhead Britain’s efforts to be world leading in this fascinating and exciting area of science.”

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