Two UK robotics companies, Cyberselves and Resolve Robotics, have been awarded a share of £800,000 in funding from the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) to develop new telexistence technologies.

The project is one of 11 in a DASA programme announced last year and run on behalf of the Ministry of Defence and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, overseen by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).

Telexistence – the use of machines to give remote humans a safe presence in physical locations, while receiving haptic and other information from them – is a fast-emerging branch of robotics. 

The systems are similar in concept to telepresence, but with greater environmental feedback and control in the relationship between operator and robot. 

They have strong applications in so-called extreme environments. These are hazardous locations where it is dangerous for humans to tread, but a robot might be sent safely. 

Core areas include space; deep mining; offshore/subsea engineering; bomb disposal; work in manmade or natural disasters; and nuclear power and the decommissioning of spent nuclear fuels or facilities. 

Extreme environments are a key area for robotics innovators, as they offer significant potential in lucrative markets such as oil, gas, green energy, nuclear power, and satellite maintenance, either to save money or generate new, safer income streams.

These are all areas overseen by the UK’s four robotics hubs: FAIR SPACE (at the University of Surrey); RAIN (University of Manchester); the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR, University of Birmingham); and the ORCA Hub at Heriot-Watt University, which specialises in offshore/subsea maintenance.

The two companies have been awarded the DASA funding to develop underwater telexistence systems for bomb disposal and nuclear decommissioning, according to an announcement from Heriot-Watt University.

The joint project, TEL-SUBSEA, reveals the cross-cutting potential of robotic systems in different applications that share similar environmental challenges.

For example, one of the obstacles to the use of robotic systems underwater is that radio waves do not propagate well in salt water, so robots often need to be tethered or operate with a degree of autonomy to counter the communications delay. 

The new project will focus on overcoming some of these problems so that operators can carry out essential work safely, swiftly, and accurately.

While there have been significant advancements in robotics in recent years due to improved sensors and AI, human-machine interface technologies have remained largely unchanged since the 1980s, explains the announcement.

“Emergent technologies – such as cloud robotics, VR, AI, and haptics – now allow humans to telepresence remotely into a robot, be immersed in a remote environment or situation, and receive haptic feedback to enhance the level of immersion.”

Software specialist Cyberselves will lead the new project, which has been spun out of Sheffield Robotics, a collaboration between the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University.

The company’s mission is to address the barriers that currently inhibit the adoption of robots in industrial, commercial, and domestic settings. 

Co-founder and CTO Daniel Camilleri said, “This is a fantastic opportunity for Cyberselves to draw together many exciting new technologies and help realise the true potential of telepresence and robotics for working alongside humans, keeping us safe by helping us to do the jobs that place us at risk. 

“That we can do this with partners that are neighbours here in Scotland and the North of England is a testament to the strength of innovative, cutting-edge talent that’s here, right on our doorstep.”

Andrew Ludar-Smith, Technical Director at Resolve Robotics, added: “Resolve Robotics is collaborating with Cyberselves to enable the teleoperation of our Micro ROV, an ultra-small, underwater, remotely operated vehicle. 

“The end result will be a robust and immersive end-user experience, creating a virtual human presence within hazardous and confined environments. Our combined technologies will enable a transformative improvement in remote intervention.”

Professor Yvan Petillot from the National Robotarium, the robotics research and showcase facility based at Heriot-Watt University, said, “As a world-leading facility that promotes removing humans from hazardous work environments, this collaboration will draw upon the world-class talent of the staff at Heriot-Watt University in marine robotics and computer vision. 

“The National Robotarium is a centre of excellence for fundamental research and knowledge exchange to address real-world challenges and industry needs. We will accelerate research from laboratory to market, paving the way for the UK to take a leadership role in telexistence technologies. 

“Our academic team will integrate new solutions for underwater telepresence and manipulation on small to medium ROVs [remotely operated underwater vehicles] for remote intervention.”