The UK’s strategy for becoming a
world leader in the field of robotics has been published, and it recommends turning whole
towns and factories into test beds for driverless cars and
autonomous worker bees.
The plan of action was put together for the Department for
Business, Innovation and Skills by a group within the Technology
Strategy Board, and seeks to help the UK take a piece of a pie
estimated to be worth between $1.9 (£1.1) and $6.4 (£3.7) trillion
a year, globally, by 2025.
The plan, due to be detailed further by David Willetts, UK
Minister of Universities and Science this afternoon, includes five
core areas for the country to focus on and invest in. These include
“coordination”, getting industry, regulators and academics to
collaborate on “a common and competitive approach”, and “assets” –
ensuring that the UK is an attractive location for international
researchers by turning wasteland into test beds and getting a legal
and regulatory framework in place, as well as skilled workers.
Among the tangible potential assets it lists, whereby test beds can
be developed, are nuclear facilities, deep mines, underwater
centres, towns that become driverless vehicle labs, airfields,
nuclear reactors, teaching hospitals, factories and farms.
Willets is due to describe the “grand challenges” that will
encourage national competition in the field, grab the public’s
attention and focus on real world scenarios so they can translate
commercially. By building a series of these competitions, it will
help us prep for regulatory framework, argues the strategy. We need
“clusters”, a Silicon Roundabout for the world of autonomous
intelligence, if you will. The plan of action suggests cities such
as Bristol or Edinburgh, where there is already something of a
robotics sector (each has its own dedicated research facility, with
the latter being most excellently titled the Robotarium).
Lastly, though perhaps, this really should have gone first in
strategy list, we need skills.
It sort of sounds like we have our work cut out. So how do we
sort this all out in time for the coming robot age? We set up
another national department of course. The Robot and Autonomous
Systems (RAS) Leadership Council will bring together politicians,
academics and business leaders.
Chair of the RAS special Interest Group, Professor David Lane,
admitted we’re a bit behind: “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.”
In fact, the strategy plan is dotted with examples of other
nations/companies already winning at robotics. The literature
states that the UK is “off to a fantastic start” when it comes to
driverless vehicles, but that “other countries have already begun
testing cars that can drive themselves, interacting safely with
other road users and using roads efficiently”. It does cite UK
projects already planned or ongoing — this includes LUTZ, a plan to have 20 driverless pods installed in Milton
Keynes by 2015, and 100 by 2017, all going well.
On the unmanned aerial vehicle front, the paper also points to
Amazon’s testing of rotorcraft and Google’s Titan Aerospace
purchase. Nevertheless, the strategy is confident the UK can hop on
the back of this growth and leverage it, increasing export sales of
systems (particularly related to things like collision detection
systems) to “organisations in oil and mineral rich countries with
both a means to pay for this capability and an interest in the
value of the information it provides”. When in doubt, target those
with too much money to spend.
The plan of action will be largely meaningless without the
investment behind it and solid analysis into what this will yield.
And many of the recommendations seem little more than vague
marketing-style assertions with little behind them (e.g.
“Consult more widely on potential Asset and cross sector
Grand Challenges”, i.e. consult on this consultation
Nevertheless, Professor Lane is confident enough to claim that
if we get things right, we stand to gain a ten percent global
market share by 2025. This is partially because of the
complementary industries in which the UK already has a large
foothold. Manufacturing, for instance, contributed £139 billion to
the UK GDP in 2012, and the space sector brings in £9 billion –
these are obviously both areas where automation and autonomy will
come into their own. Other industries ripe for cost-saving through
robotics include long-term care of an ageing population and the
smart city revolution (estimated by the study to be worth more than
£230 billion by 2020).
“A key priority should be providing support, connectivity and
guidance to entrepreneurs, whilst stimulating interest in robotics
among the investment community,” said Ian Shott, Chair of the
Enterprise Committee at the Royal Academy of Engineering.
“International technology giants such as Google, Amazon and Apple
spent millions on robotics in 2013 and investors would be foolish
not to take note of this trend. The UK must do everything it can to
accelerate the development of our small and growing robotics
businesses, helping to make them as attractive as possible to
There are no calculations presented in the strategy that explain
how the global takeover of industry by autonomous beings will
effect other sectors of the economy — namely, what will happen to
all the meat sacks that have been put out of a job and become