Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) or ‘smart machines’ underpin the UK’s economic productivity and growth and are a key component of the 4th Industrial Revolution.
To date, robotics have primarily been used in manufacturing and, ranked against its peers, the UK has under-invested in these tools. However, a convergence of the latest developments in physical engineering, material science and artificial intelligence means that robots are now getting smarter, cheaper, smaller, and more collaborative, allowing them to move into services and consumer markets.
The global RAS market is growing at almost 40% a year. The consultancy Tractica estimates global robotics revenue will reach $249 billion by 2025, with non-industrial uses making up 90% of that growth.
New solutions can help overcome long-term challenges
- nuclear decommissioning and fusion technology
- robotic surgery and assisted care
- future mobility, drones and space travel
- farming, food production, logistics and distribution
- carbon reduction, towards net zero.
RAS solutions can also improve the quality of jobs and the productivity of firms, freeing people’s time to focus on the good rewarding work that brings value to human lives, while robots tackle the dark, dangerous, dirty and repetitive work to which they are better suited.
The UK has great strengths to build on. UK companies and universities are competitive, with effective clusters and networks and strong technical skills in design, engineering, (electrical, mechanical, software) and sales & marketing. Government provides support from fundamental research (Trustworthy Autonomous Systems) to deployment at higher TRL levels (Robots for a Safer World). A strong reputation for safe development and application of RAS (hardware and software) and engaged regulators help support the challenging path to commercial success. Dedicated units help create the conditions for success for UK companies in Artificial Intelligence and self-driving cars.
However, this is a global race with UK success by no means guaranteed. Scaling RAS solutions face real hardware and production challenges, demand is constrained by high cost and hype of early prototypes and many investors lack the patience and pockets to enable robotics start-ups to prove their value and find new markets.
In 2019, Government convened the Robotics Growth Partnership (“RGP”) working with RAS sector leaders across academia and industry to put the UK at the cutting edge of the smart robotics revolution ambition, turbo-charging economic productivity and unlocking benefits across society.
Two co-chairs have been appointed, David Lane (Director, Edinburgh Centre for Robotics) and Paul Clarke (CTO, Ocado), tasked with developing a vision to drive the sector forward.
What is RAS?
RAS or ‘smart machines’ are physical systems that can act independently of human control, by sensing, reasoning and adapting to a given situation or environment.
The autonomous capabilities of smart machines enable a wide range of applications that were previously impossible. Whereas industrial robots have generally been confined to controlled factory settings, RAS can now be applied alongside humans in areas such as assisted living for the elderly, robotic surgery in hospitals and ‘co-bots’ supporting warehouse workers.