Extreme environments are a problem in many industries. Environments that are lethal or hazardous to human beings, or which present tough operating challenges, typify many sectors, such as space, offshore oil and gas, underwater engineering, deep mining, nuclear energy, and nuclear decommissioning.
Dangerous environments often share the same types of safety problems for human operators: radiation or other toxic emissions, lack of oxygen, poor visibility, extremes of temperature, restricted movement, unstructured spaces, radio communications problems, and more.
Yet anywhere that is dangerous for humans also presents a major opportunity for robotics and autonomous systems, if safe, trustworthy, and robust technologies can be developed to solve the problems that such environments create. Robots, sensors, grippers, communications and control systems, assurance technologies, and computer vision are all part of the broad range of solutions that specialist companies are developing.
Given the shared safety and operating challenges that characterise these spaces, developing technologies that have cross-sector applications may be the key to unlocking the sector’s wider commercial potential.
Take interplanetary travel and deep sea engineering, for example: the communications time-lag that exists over vast distances in space is, unexpectedly, also a problem on much of the Earth: under the sea (which covers seventy percent of the surface), radio waves propagate poorly, because salt water is an electrical conductor. So developing autonomous or semi-autonomous control systems for robots is equally applicable in both scenarios, as are grippers, computer vision systems, and more.
Cost is another factor: working in extreme environments is risky and time-consuming. That makes it expensive, so part of the challenge is to develop solutions that save operators money by offering them a quicker, safer option than putting humans in harm’s way. As a result, a service-based approach to solving problems – rather than selling complex technologies – is critical for commercial success.
Extreme environment robotics could also help overcome public scepticism about robots and AI, if machines can be shown to save lives, cut expenditure, make industry safer, and help protect the environment.
All of the above reasons are why UK Research and Investment, via Innovate UK, has invested over £93 million to date from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) to develop robotic solutions for a safer world.
Earlier this year, Innovate UK hosted an Expert Mission to California and Texas, two US hotspots of technology and engineering research. This was part of an ongoing series of trade missions to different parts of the world, including China, Japan, South Korea, and Canada. The programme is designed to start new conversations and open doors to UK entrepreneurs.
In March, a dozen delegates, including academics, technologists from blue-chip brands, and representatives from UK robotics and AI startups, spent a week visiting organisations in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Houston. The purpose was to explore new partnership opportunities between the UK and US in extreme environment robotics. Many of the site visits were in areas such as aerospace, offshore energy, and cross-cutting (multi-sector) applications.
Delegates – all previous recipients of ISCF funding – met representatives from, among others, NASA, Jacobs, Schlumberger, Oceaneering, South West Research Institute, Northrop-Grumman, the Maritime Alliance, Brain Corporation, the Aerospace Corporation, Techstars, Starburst, the US Army Research Lab, Chevron, and Houston Mechatronics – a Texan startup founded by ex-NASA engineers. The latter has developed an underwater transforming robot, Aquanaut, with which the company plans to ‘Uberise’ subsea engineering, including in the North Sea.
During the Expert Mission, NASA announced US plans to return to the Moon by 2024, in missions that will be assisted by the private sector and enabled by robotics. In the same week, NASA tested unmanned rotorcraft that the space agency hopes will help one day explore the surface of Mars.
At an extended visit to NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, the Expert Mission met a second UK delegation, this time from the UK’s four academic Robotics Hubs – FAIR-SPACE, ORCA, NCNR, and RAIN. These were set up in 2017 under the ISCF to commercialise university research into robotics and AI for space, offshore engineering, and nuclear energy. A dozen representatives of the Hubs spoke at a private robotics and AI conference at the JSC, positioning UK research in the vanguard of extreme environments applications.
A detailed report from the Expert Mission, outlining the many challenges and opportunities, was published last week by Innovate UK, and is available here. However, the public version of the document does not include a final chapter of policy advice to the government, which was for ministers’ eyes only.
So what has the outcome of the Expert Mission been to date? Are initiatives such as this working?
At UK Robotics Week in June, Dr. Ron Diftler, Chief of NASA’s Robotic Systems Technology branch at the JSC, Dr. Stephen Hart, Senior Scientist at TRACLabs, and Professor Mitchell Pryor, Research Scientist at the University of Texas (all organisations were at the Houston event in March) attended a showcase in London. There, they set out a vision of close potential collaboration with the UK’s Robotics Hubs – if joint funding mechanisms could be established.
Meanwhile, at the London launch of the Innovate UK report last week, the government announced a new Robotics Growth Partnership to “help unlock the potential of the robotics revolution”. (The need for clarity of focus and simplicity of structure in government was touched on in the report, in order to help the UK capitalise on its robotics ambitions.)
The new Partnership will be led by Paul Clarke, Chief Technology Officer of online supermarket Ocado, and Professor David Lane, Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, who also leads the ORCA Hub.
Announcing the scheme, Chris Skidmore, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, said that it will “bring together representatives from across industry, academia, and government to develop an action plan to strengthen and develop the partnership, to bring the sector together, and to help push UK RAS [robotics and autonomous systems] forward.”
And this week it was announced that one of the startups that attended the Expert Mission – Hybird, a UK developer of robotic systems to digitise and inspect industrial assets – has won a place on the inaugural Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator programme, which is taking place now in the US.
The three-month, Los Angeles-based accelerator – jointly run by Techstars and Starburst – aims to hothouse the development of 10 startups that solve major problems in the space sector, via expert mentors and sponsors from industry and government. Partners include NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Aerospace Corporation, Lockheed Martin, Maxar Technologies, the US Air Force, SAIC, and Israel Aerospace Industries North America.
During the Expert Mission, delegates had an extended meeting with representatives from Techstars, Starburst, and the Aerospace Corporation, and also spent time at the JPL during their two-day stay in Los Angeles.
It seems that conversations started back in March are ongoing today, and opening doors for UK innovators.