Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Robots for a safer world

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The ‘robots for a safer world’ challenge focused on research and innovation in advanced robotics and autonomous systems.

It aimed to create a safer working world for humans by taking them out of extreme environments such as places that are difficult or dangerous for humans to access.

Budget:
£112 million awarded to over 200 organisations
Duration:
2017 to 2022
Partners involved:
Innovate UK and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Co-funders: UK Space Agency, Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, TEPCO, Royal Navy, UK Defence Solutions Centre, Net Zero Technology Centre

The scope and what we're doing

This challenge, with an investment of up to £112 million, focused on research and innovation in advanced robotics and autonomous systems. This was supported by over £500 million of industry-matched funding into our community.

Over the past five years we’ve shown that robots can take on tasks that are:

  • dangerous
  • demanding
  • dirty
  • distant
  • dull.

Our investments have developed robotics and artificial intelligence systems that can carry out tasks in extreme environments like:

  • the freezing depths of the North Sea
  • dealing with the process of nuclear energy production and decommissioning
  • the hostile vacuum of space
  • the heat of deep mining.

The challenge also addressed new needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, such as robotic sanitising of care facilities.

Watch Andrew Tyrer, challenge director, explain more about the ‘robots for a safer world’ challenge.

Video credit: UKRI. On-screen captions and an auto-generated transcript is available on YouTube.

Why we're doing it

The challenge aimed to create a safer working world for humans by taking them out of extreme environments such as places that are difficult or dangerous for humans to access.

Past projects, outcomes and impact

Impact of the challenge on the UK robotics industry

In the last five years we have:

  • supported over 200 unique organisations (178 businesses and 45 research and
  • technology organisations and universities)
  • funded 162 different projects across the offshore, nuclear, space and mining sectors, and beyond.

The challenge has built a cohort of organisations all pulling in the same direction, bringing innovative products and services to market.

On the international stage, we:

  • carried out a mission to the US
  • visited NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • visited energy-based organisations in Houston
  • took part in robotics clusters events run by Innovate UK Edge in Amsterdam and Canada
  • attended international events such as Oceanology International and the SPRINT Robotics World Conference in Rotterdam.

Research investments

Investments under this challenge included four robotics research hubs and collaborative research and development projects.

Robotics research hubs

The hubs were:

Each hub looked at a different area of robotics use cases and worked nationwide with many partners.

The leads were based at:

  • University of Surrey (FAIR-SPACE)
  • University of Birmingham (NCNR)
  • Heriot-Watt University (ORCA)
  • The University of Manchester (RAIN).

Collaborative research and development projects

Explore all the challenge’s funded projects.

Project case studies

Drones to maintain offshore wind farms

BladeBUG Limited is developing a unique walking robotic device. It is designed to remotely perform detailed inspection, maintenance and repair of wind turbine blades, offering significant health and safety benefits over rope access technicians.

The robot uses multiple legs with vacuum cups, and can be rapidly deployed and retrieved, minimising turbine losses.

Video credit: UKRI. On-screen captions and an auto-generated transcript is available on YouTube.

The future of fruit packing

Wootzano, based in County Durham, has developed an entirely autonomous robotic system capable of completing delicate, dexterous tasks like fruit and vegetable packing.

With a patented electronic skin, proprietary hardware and machine learning algorithms in fully integrated robotic packaging systems, Wootzano’s technology allows its robots to have a greater sensory awareness of their environment.

This allows the robots to analyse data such as:

  • pressure
  • firmness
  • temperature
  • humidity
  • chemical signatures.

Video credit: UKRI On-screen captions and an auto-generated transcript is available on YouTube.

Exploring underground environments

Project Prometheus looked at the inspection and exploration of underground environments, which can only be accessed through 140mm to 150mm boreholes.

The robots can inspect subterranean mines underneath the rail network and other infrastructure, which humans cannot reach, are dark, lack GPS and can be partially flooded.

Assisting with nuclear decommissioning

The NCNR is reducing the need for humans to enter radioactive environments by sending drones to monitor and survey nuclear sites.

The University of Bristol, as part of the NCNR consortium, conducted the first ever drone flight over Chernobyl’s Red Forest, using radiation mapping technology to conduct an aerial survey.

This innovative technology is cheaper, safer and provides more extensive measurements than using manned aircraft.

This is the integrated website of the seven research councils, Research England and Innovate UK.
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