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Moving Supply Chains Towards a Sustainable Future: The Government’s View of Robotics

Some of the team were delighted to attend the recent annual Robotics and Automation conference, part of the IntraLogisteX event, at The NEC Birmingham, held over two days on March 19-20th.

The conference featured incredible content and knowledge sharing in case studies, exhibitors, seminars, and, best of all, conference sessions hosted by industry experts who shared insights into the role of robotics in moving supply chains toward a sustainable future.

We were excited to learn more about the government’s view of robotics at a keynote speech delivered by Gordon Baker, Policy Lead for Robotics at the UK Department of Science, Innovation & Technology.

The government’s view of robotics

The commercial application of robotics is currently the government’s focus, though there is support for robotics in manufacturing as well.

Exciting success stories around robotics in the UK over the last decade include:

  • Ocado (warehouse robotic picking and packing)
  • CMR Surgical (next-generation surgical robot)

The government is focused on service sector robotics, such as in agriculture, defence and construction. There are great opportunities to get robots to do some of the dangerous or difficult work people carry out, whether that’s a surgeon getting greater manipulation capabilities, or going to places we humans can’t, like outer space or underwater. Robotics enables us to do things more safely and with more resilience.

There’s also the issue of labour shortages, and we’ve seen the challenges of COVID. Robotics is an essential element in meeting those challenges and boosting agility.

A government study carried out a few years ago examined the potential opportunity for automation in different sectors. In terms of robotics, logistics is the most ready-to-grow sector.

There are many commercially investable, ready-made solutions. Warehouse logistics has the highest rate of adoption and is the most likely industry to deliver the benefits of robotics.

The challenges and complexities around robotics from a government viewpoint

Baker posed the question: We know the benefits of robotics, so why aren’t we doing this? What is holding us back?

Baker used the example of drones – the government’s work with drones and how you enable drones has illustrated some of the complexities of robotics. The government is doing a lot of work on the regulatory side to help the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) enable longer-distance drones to work effectively and communicate with each other.

There is a paradox thinking about that, he said. “Imagine this is your enormous warehouse that we are in now, and you control everything. You know how much complexity there is and how everyone must understand what this autonomic robot is doing and how they can deconflict it, get the most out of it, and get the data from it to maximise the benefits.

“The issues arise when you take that outside of your control. There are lots of different players, all with their business models and constraints. The growing insurance liability market is proving quite effective. But regulators and local governments don’t know how much they should be using drones or controlling them.”

Baker explained that it is difficult to get by-laws right because we don’t yet know the boundaries. “Public perception is going to be a huge element of how we get the benefits—what do people see as noise nuisance?” There is also the issue of privacy.

In Finland, the USA, Australia, and Ireland, there are several examples of commercial drone deliveries at the town scale, with thousands of deliveries occurring successfully. “We’ve seen there that the public perception is very favourable. Once people see the benefits of drones, there is an uptick in understanding and support for them.”

The challenge is getting over the public’s mistrust to enable it and show that drones are safe. In contrast, the Ocado story is accepted. Hundreds of robots are on a grid controlled by a central AI mind.

That’s where the future of drones is—not that there are individual drones up there, but that they are all part of a system that is much safer, controllable, and understandable. Baker used the example of self-driving cars, which are going down the route of being much more connected and autonomous. “That is the future, where we have more of a system of managing and understanding what is going on.”

For example, consider Poland. “They introduced a unified traffic management system for their drones. This year, they will fly a million drone flights beyond visual line of sight, controlled and understood through an AI-supported system. It shows there are tech solutions to that coordination challenge. This is a big part of what the government is trying to support and understand.”

Another key challenge, said Baker, is the overlap with AI and how autonomous these things are. “How does the regulator understand your simulated system and deconflict that with someone else’s? The verification of system controls is something we have to navigate in the future.”

“We need a cyber-physical infrastructure to ensure that these systems communicate effectively and safely. If we consider the self-driving car, there is a lot of data validation and verification going on. For example, where was that accident? Why did it happen? And then understanding the decision-making within the system and how it is verified. There’s a lot of work going into that.”

People understandably have anxieties and concerns. There is a huge amount of mechanical control, logistics, and logical thought processes involved.

Jobs were highlighted as another issue. Forecasts show that automation will radically transform many tasks. This will benefit organisations and workers where there are labour shortages and eradicate dirty and dangerous jobs. Robotics provides a huge amount of potential, but there will be some disruption and challenges around skills and investment to support the transition.

How the government is addressing the challenges

The Made Smarter programme, set up to help UK manufacturing industries prosper through digital tools and innovation, received a significant funding boost from the government last year.

There are now many facilities around the UK where businesses can tap into expertise. The National Robotarium, for example, is a world-leading centre for Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, creating innovative solutions to global challenges.

About the National Robotarium: Informed by sectoral needs, the National Robotarium collaborates with industry partners around the globe and acts as a gateway to the UK robotics sector and government support. It aims to positively impact the UK economy by aiding the rapid transition of solutions from laboratory to market, supporting start-ups and SMEs from Heriot-Watt University, the University of Edinburgh, and across the UK. Stewart Miller is Chief Executive Officer at the National Robotarium (since 2021), having previously been Chief Technology Officer of the UK Government’s innovation agency, Innovate UK.

Both government and organisational support will enable the transition and ensure robotics is widely adopted. Baker said co-created solutions will bring confidence, awareness and investment.

The Bristol Robotics Lab has been growing in its joint ventures with universities for over a decade. It is involved in a wide range of national and international robotics research projects. “It is very much an incubation space.”

The government supports a range of different programmes. One example is the Future Flight Challenge. Seventeen different phase three challenges will be trialled and demonstrated over this year. The projects will share £73 million in funding to develop and demonstrate integrated aviation systems and new vehicle technologies.

“The big challenge is moving to a system with connectivity between these different approaches and trials. A mainstream of capabilities will be a huge resource in emergency response and asset inspection.”

Oil and gas sectors use drones to monitor field activities, monitor the construction of new infrastructure, and identify pipeline encroachment.

The government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) shows the ambition for self-driving cars. But there are regulatory hurdles. “It’s complicated to enable a digital app environment for these vehicles. It’s a big challenge. We are now seeing a lot of investment in semi-controlled environments, such as shuttle buses. Oxa, for example, is running a trial in Florida.”

Baker explained the challenge is getting regulators happy with it and the adopter and the end user to pay. None of this will be funded by investment. There must be revenue streams and stages to get widespread adoption. “The big hype of ‘let’s throw billions at it’ has gone.” There is a lot of potential, but it is about attracting wise investment for a glide path and a sustainable business model.

The big opportunities are in the logistics sector rather than on the roads.

The government is also investing hugely in farming R&D, mainly due to the UK’s split from Europe. “We are investing in farmers improving their sustainability. There is funding for the companies producing the technology and for the farmers to trial and deploy that. It’s an exciting time to be in the agricultural sector. We know that dairy farming has used robotics for decades.” Picking and packhouse automation is also stepping up.

There is also a considerable amount going on in defence. The uncrewed system strategy (formerly the defence drone strategy) aims to enhance collaboration and innovation relating to uncrewed systems. The government has committed £4.6 billion over ten years. This will explore autonomy in drones, vehicles, offshore and underwater.

The government has a science and technology framework for governance, procurement, skills, and capabilities.

Question from the audience: Poland installed a drone traffic management system in 2020. Why don’t we have that in the UK? What is the barrier to that?

“It needs a mandate from the government to say, everyone flying crewed aircraft needs to have digital visibility to everyone else. You’ve probably got a mobile phone in your pocket so you could be visible through that, but the way society has developed in the UK around transport, we have yet to require that. Interestingly, defence, procurement, health, police, and rail are all asking for the same thing – can we have a system where everybody is visible? It probably is a mandate for the government. It doesn’t cost anything, but it does upset the current way of operating where anybody can do it and fly what they want.”