Airfields, farms and towns could become testing sites for newest robotic inventions in the UK.
Factories, farms, lakes and towns will become proving grounds for robots, drones and driverless cars under plans handed to the government on Tuesday that would transform Britain into a leading test centre for the machines.
Decommissioned nuclear plants at Sellafield, the nation’s deepest mine at Boulby in Yorkshire and Loch Linnhe near Fort William are among places being eyed up as facilities to put the next generation of robots through their paces.
The strategy would see airfields co-opted for experimental drone flights and towns such as Milton Keynes used as tough urban proving grounds for driverless cars, where navigation, object-avoidance and automated parking can be tested to the limit.
Unveiled in the UK’s first official robotics strategy, the proposals aim to increase Britain’s income from robotics and so-called autonomous systems (RAS) which can perform certain tasks without human operators.
The plans, drawn up by the government’s Technology Strategy Board, foresee around a dozen proving grounds where companies and researchers can test their robots in real-world situations to make sure they work properly and are safe for humans to be around.
Once the testbeds are established, they will host a series of challenges that set robots specific tasks. These will be designed to drive new technologies, and could include a deep-water search for an aircraft black box, the dismantling of equipment in a nuclear plant, smart route-finding to parking places, or the ability to move a sick patient in their home.
“If we are going to have robots interacting with people we need to make sure they work properly, but we also need to understand how people behave around them. We need to get used to the idea of working with robots,” said David Lane, chair of the Technology Strategy Board’s RAS special interest group.
RAS is one of the eight technologies the chancellor, George Osborne, is banking on to drive UK growth, but other countries, including Japan, the US, South Korea and Germany, are dominant in the market, which could be worth £70bn by 2025 according to a McKinsey report last year. “It’s important we don’t dilly-dally, because the race is on,” said Lane.
Speaking before the announcement of the strategy, science minister David Willetts said: “We’re very keen for people to come up with ideas for robot enterprise zones where you can try them out in a controlled environment. Over the months ahead we’ll work with the experts to see where there are public expenditure costs, what they are and [whether they are] affordable,” he added. In total, the government invests about £150m in RAS.
For robotics to become a leading driver of the UK economy, the regulatory environment has to move with the demands of the technology. That means adapting rules to allow drones to fly in civilian airspace and driverless cars to take to the roads. According to Lane, the regulators are making progress: “They are up for it. In one sense they have no choice, because they know this is coming.”
The country’s long history of offshore oil and gas exploration has led to homegrown expertise in submersible robots for maintenance and inspection. As one of the first countries to decommission nuclear power stations, there are facilities becoming available where robots could be developed to work in the grim conditions that faced Japanese operators at the Fukushima Daiichi plant after it was crippled by the 2011 tsunami.
Though robots are most often built to do jobs that are dull, dangerous or dirty, the challenge in making them work lies in the specifics. In a deep mine, a robot needs to not only cope with the hot conditions but with fine particles that can wear down robotic limbs. In a nuclear plant, a robot might need radiation protection, but also be able to manoeuvre in tight and complex spaces.
Urban environments are no easier. A robot road-cleaner needs to sweep the streets, avoid pedestrians and other objects, but also complete its route unscathed. “You have to engineer a robot for the environment it’s going into. If you’re going to put it into Glasgow city centre on Friday night, it’s the same principle,” said Lane.
Rather than Amazon deliveries of books, mooted by the online firm last year, some of the first commercial uses of drones could be on farms, to monitor crops and deliver pesticides. Farms have the advantage of being on private, isolated land, where the risk of accidents is lower than in towns and cities.
“Shifting a hardback Harry Potter volume will require a fair amount of power, and that, if it crashed or went awry, could seriously harm people. I think we are a long way off the Amazon book delivery. The whole area of liability is going to be important,” said Willetts.
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