Improvements in robots and robotic technologies has fuelled huge advancements across many industries in recent years. The UK Industrial Strategy has several Sector Deals in which robotic innovations play a role, particularly in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Life Sciences and Nuclear.
Innovative robotics have a place in all industries to improve efficiency and processes, however, in industries where radioactive materials are commonly used, using robots can help to manage risk. This could be by limiting exposure of employees to radioactive substances or preventing potential accidents.
In the UK, legislation exists as to how much exposure to ionising radiation employees may have each year – an adult employee is classified, and therefore must be monitored, if they receive an effective dose of greater than 6mSv per year. The average adult in the UK receives 2.7 mSv of radiation per year.
Snake-like robot is used to dismantle nuclear facilities. Video: Tech Insider
Through using robots, very few professionals in the chemical industry come close to this limit, and are subsequently safe from long-term health effects, such as skin burns, radiation sickness and cancer.
Traditional electronics are made from rigid and brittle materials. However, a new ‘self-healing’ electronic material allows a soft robot to recover its circuits after it is punctured, torn or even slashed with a razor blade.
Made from liquid metal droplets suspended in a flexible silicone elastomer, it is softer than skin and can stretch about twice its length before springing back to its original size.
Soft Robotics & Biologically Inspired Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. Video: Mouser Electronics
‘The material around the damaged area automatically creates new conductive pathways, which bypass the damage and restore connectivity in the circuit,’ explains first author Carmel Majidi at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The rubbery material could be used for wearable computing, electronic textiles, soft field robots or inflatable extra-terrestrial housing.
‘There is a sweet spot for the size of the droplets,’ says Majidi. ‘We had to get the size not so small that they never rupture and form electronic connections, but not so big they would rupture even under light pressure.’
Currently one of the least digitised industries in the world, the agricultural sector is fast becoming a hub of innovation in robotics. One report suggests the agricultural robotics industry will be worth £8.5bn by 2027.
Feeding the increasing global population – set to hit 8bn by 2023 – is a major concern in the sector, with farmers already stretched to capacity with current technology.
With this said, the European Commission – via Horizon 2020 – has launched a programme and fund to drive research and innovation in the area. Developments in precision agriculture, which uses data and technology for a more controlled approach to farming management, has been particularly encouraging.
But similar to other labour-intensive industries, such as manufacturing, robots could be used to relieve workers in difficult conditions, and there are many projects close to commercialisation.
One such project is SWEEPER – a greenhouse harvesting tool that can detect when sweet peppers are ready to harvest through sensors. SWEEPER runs between the vines on a rail and uses GPS tracking to navigate through its environment.
Although focusing on sweet peppers for this research, the group say that the technology could be applied to other fruits and crops.
The EU-funded consortium in charge of the development of the SWEEPER robot is made up of six academic and industry partners from four countries: Belgium, Sweden, Israel and the Netherlands, where the research is based.
Greenhouses pose harsh working conditions during harvesting season, including excessive heat, humidity, and long hours.
The SWEEPER robot in action. Video: WUR Glastuinbouw
‘The reduction in the labour force has put major pressure on the competitiveness of the European greenhouse sector,’ said Jos Balendonck, project coordinator from Wageningen University & Research, the Netherlands.
‘We hope to develop the technology that will prevent greenhouse food production from migrating out of Europe due to the 40 % expected rise in labour costs over the coming decade.’
Currently testing the second version of the robot, the research group already envision adding improvements – from sensors that can detect vitamin content, sweetness levels and the sweet pepper’s expected shelf life to the ability to alert farmers when crop disease could hit their crops in advance.
A world first
Meanwhile, engineers at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, UK, and agriculture firm Precision Decisions have become the first group to harvest a crop completely autonomously.
The Hands Free Hectare project – funded by Innovate UK – modified existing farming machinery to incorporate open-source data that would allow the control systems to be located externally.
At the start of the season, an autonomous tractor sows the crops into the soil using GPS positioning, and sprays them periodically with pesticides throughout their growth. A separate rover takes soil samples to analyse nutrient content and to check pH levels are maintained.
When the crops begin to sprout from the ground a drone is used to monitor growth by taking images. Finally, a combine harvester controlled from outside of the field harvests the crops.
Kit Franklin, an Agricultural Engineering lecturer at the university, said: ‘As a team, we believe there is now no technological barrier to automated field agriculture. This project gives us the opportunity to prove this and change current public perception.’
Image: Hands Free Hectare
Despite innovation in the area, farmers have been slow to embrace the new technology, partially due to the lack of high quality data available that would allow more flexibility in the sector. Others, including the wider public, worry that development will lead to job losses in the industry.
However, scientists say the jobs will still be there but farmers and agricultural workers will use their skills to control the autonomous systems from behind the scenes instead.
‘Automation will facilitate a sustainable system where multiple smaller, lighter machines will enter the field, minimising the level of compaction,’ said Franklin.
‘These small autonomous machines will in turn facilitate high resolution precision farming, where different areas of the field, and possibly even individual plants can be treated separately, optimising and potentially reducing inputs being used in field agriculture.’
It has been a year since Prime Minister Theresa May announced the launch of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund at CBI’s annual conference. At the time, May said the fund would ‘help to address Britain’s historic weakness on commercialisation and turning our world-leading research into long-term success’.
Since then, Innovate UK has worked closely with the government and research councils to identify the great innovation challenges the UK faces.
‘Innovate UK have been in this right from the very beginning,’ said Ruth McKernan, Chief Executive of Innovate UK, speaking at Innovate 2017. McKernan explained that the organisation has held several engagement events to find out what ‘industry and researchers see as the challenges of the future and where economic growth can be developed in the UK’.
The first three challenges sponsored by the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund were announced in April this year: The Faraday challenge, medicines manufacturing, and robotics and autonomous systems.
Andrew Tyrer, Interim Director of Robotics and Autonomous Systems is now responsible for the £69m investment into research on AI in extreme conditions.
Research projects in this cohort include robotics in deep mining, space exploration, and off-shore energy. ‘One of the challenges is that you cannot put people in these environments,’ he said.
Space is just one of the dangerous environments being researched in robotics projects. Image: NASA
However, the UK does not currently have the research capacity to access the global market, Tyrer explained. For example, he said ‘the nuclear decommissioning market in five years will be at £150bn a year in Europe alone’ – a market the UK is currently struggling to make an impact.
‘The programme is about taking academic and business excellence, linking those value chains together, and building those industries,’ Tyrer said.
On the other end of the spectrum, is the Faraday Challenge – a ‘commitment’ to research into the battery development of driverless cars and an area of research the UK has already seen success in – headed by Jacqui Murray and Kathryn Magnay.
The UK have pledged to have all petrol and diesel vehicles off roads by 2040. Image: Wikimedia Commons
‘Automotive has been a real success story in the UK in the last 10 years,’ said Murray, with the UK reaching ‘world-class’ in productivity levels.
However, there are ways the UK needs to improve, said Magnay. ‘In the UK we have a huge gap between the research that we do and how you scale that up in the manufacturing process,’ she said.
This is the inspiration for the upcoming £65m Faraday Battery Institute, which will serve as a hub for universities, as well as other academic institutions and industry partners, to further their science. Magnay said that Innovate UK wants to ‘provide a facility that companies and researchers can go to and take their ideas to trial them at scale’.
Will smart energy solutions be the next challenge?
Further challenges under the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund are currently unknown, although there are rumours of an early 2018 announcement. Which challenge will be next?