Robotics could be a major growth area for UK engineering if the right policy decisions are made according to a new strategy

Robotics strategy targets world leader status for UK

The UK could become a world leader in robotics and autonomous systems with the right strategy, according to a new report.

A new strategy developed for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) by the Technology Strategy Board’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems Special Interest Group (RAS SIG), says the UK is in a prime position to become a world leader in an industry estimated to be worth between $1.9-6.4tr per year by 2025 in terms of its global economic impact.

But policy document, drafted in consultation with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the UK robotics industry, calls for action for more support for the sector in light of mounting competition from countries such as Japan, Korea and the USA.

A key recommendation of the strategy is to develop existing UK assets, such as decommissioned nuclear sites, farms, factories, mines and whole towns, for use as valuable robotics test beds.

Earmarking farm sites to test the deployment of autonomous crop management systems or equipping towns to safely test driverless cars on real roads could present a unique opportunity to attract robotics developers and investors from around the world if combined with a flexible regulatory framework.

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts, who will official launch the plan this afternoon as part of the Technology Strategy Board’s £400m Delivery Plan for 2014-2015 , said: “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.

“Technologies that have traditionally been the preserve of science fiction are becoming increasingly commonplace; from robotic limbs through to driverless cars. Britain has a wealth of expertise in robotics and autonomous systems that is why it has been identified as one of our eight great technologies.

“This strategy provides an ambitious guide for how the UK can build the foundations for a thriving robotics industry that can become an engine of growth.”

The strategy highlights that the biggest opportunities for the UK to exploit are in transport, health, energy and manufacturing – from driverless cars and rail systems that can monitor and repair the track autonomously, through to assistive technologies for the elderly and remote nuclear plant safety monitoring.

To promote growth the strategy proposes the creation of RAS Grand Challenges in which teams compete to build demonstrators focused on real scenarios that stimulate collaboration, identify what is possible, and excite the public.

Investing in areas of emerging robotics growth, such as Edinburgh and Bristol, is also key in order to foster ‘clusters’ that will help stimulate innovation, the report says, while all activities should be carried out with engagement in mind  as the general appeal of robotics means it has the potential to attract the brightest and best to STEM subjects.

A pressing need to improve the process of technology transfer from UK scientific research into viable businesses is also highlighted, as well as the importance of entrepreneurial support schemes, such as the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Enterprise Hub.

In order to implement the recommended actions, the strategy recommends the establishment of a RAS Leadership Council to engage with senior leaders across a range of sectors in industry, academia and Government, and to provide independent advisory direction.

Professor David Lane FREng, chair of the RAS SIG, said: “The UK is a substantial contributor to some of the world's best research in the field of robotics and autonomous systems, but countries such as Japan, Korea and the USA have had greater success in developing companies to exploit those opportunities.

“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.

“The UK has an exceptional heritage in many of the industries where robotics can be most useful, and our world-leading research base makes us ideally placed to exploit the opportunities arising in these fields, but we need to act quickly if we don’t want to be left behind. With the right course of action, we believe the UK could achieve 10 per cent of the global market share by 2025.”

A copy of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems UK Strategy is available here.

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