How Edinburgh is playing a key role in robotics

Heriot Watt has deep expertise in robotics and artificial intelligence.
Heriot Watt has deep expertise in robotics and artificial intelligence.
Share this article
Promoted by Heriot Watt University

As the UK’s first National Robotarium takes shape in the west of Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt University continues its journey to becoming one of the world’s leading centres for robotics.  

Yet this is not robotics focused purely on dizzying technological progress, taking us to a place where superhuman robots run our lives. It is founded firmly on a pragmatic relationship between research, innovation and the business community which can deliver tangible benefits for society.

Professor David Lane, founding director of the Edinburgh Centre of Robotics at Heriot-Watt, which opened in 2013, explains: “We are a centre of research excellence, with world-class, top-quality scientific research in robotics, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence.

“However, we need to translate this world-leading research into something useful which leads to jobs and growth by creating new products and services. Research has to drive innovation and deliver economic advantage and hence prosperity for all. To achieve this, we develop our people and our work to be innovation-ready.

“As a world-leading centre, the international prestige of our work attracts global interest that in turn brings businesses to Scotland. It also helps us create exciting start-ups, aligning what they do with relevant business sectors and connecting them with international marketplaces.

“We have to fashion that broader ecosystem – regionally and globally – and create the entrepreneurs of the future, people who change the culture.”

The Centre for Robotics and the National Robotarium are partnerships with the University of Edinburgh, where Heriot-Watt’s engineering heritage and strengths in robotics for hazardous environments, manufacturing, healthcare and human-robot interaction meld well with Edinburgh’s strengths in space, construction and humanoids.

Lane has been at the heart of driving forward the UK’s robotics and AI agenda. In 2013/14 he led a national team to co-write Robotics & Autonomous Systems 2020 for Government – a UK strategy for academia, industry, investors and government which has led to increased public and private investment and activity. “It produced the foundations of an innovation pipeline in robotics and AI across the UK, spurring university research and skills development, and the translation of nascent science and engineering talent into startups, SMEs and industry,” notes Lane.

He says ‘service robots’ are where the economic opportunities lie, improving productivity, working alongside people performing dangerous, repetitive and routine tasks, allowing us to release our creativity instead: “Although the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and others are investing in this area we have everything to play for in key sectors where we excel – offshore energy, nuclear power, transport, warehousing, healthcare and more. There is a revolution going on.”

Lane stresses the constant need for investment and says there are encouraging signs, with a tenfold growth in venture capital support going into Robotics & Autonomous Systems in the last two years: “To translate, research needs private sector support and funding to provide the rocket fuel that makes companies grow. This helps deliver competitive advantage, economic benefit, greater productivity – and better safety.

“We are working closely with the Scottish Government (as well as UK Government) to develop a strategy for robotics and to get all stakeholders moving in the same direction, reflecting the needs of the economy in Scotland. How can we use robotics in areas of economic strength like energy, food and drink, healthcare, agriculture, construction and space? It’s about matching resources and leadership to direction of travel to get interested companies on board, driving economic growth. That’s the trick.”

Paul Devlin, Heriot-Watt University’s recently appointed head of commercialisation, adds:

“There will be an even bigger push from Heriot-Watt to work with industry and take innovative products and services from lab to market, to increase the number of industries using robotics and data – and to develop talent.

“I’m excited by developments like the Robotarium, and how industrial processes benefit from data. For instance, how can our Galashiels campus use data in areas like smart textiles and work with colleagues in Dubai.”

So what is the precise role of the UK’s National Robotarium, one of the key Data-Driven Innovation projects in the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal?

“The Robotarium builds on the industry-facing part of the Centre for Robotics,” says Lane. “It will be a facility where companies can develop technologies and carry out challenge-based innovation in safe environments – before they deploy it on roads, in hospitals, in factories or in the ocean.”

Talent is also crucial to delivering on Heriot-Watt’s ambitious agenda. There are more than 100 PhD places associated with the Centre for Robotics, but it’s not all about what’s happening on campus.

“Our Graduate Apprenticeship Programmes can help people already in work to improve their skills in their existing job,” says David Richardson, Heriot-Watt’s Chief Entrepreneurial Executive. “We work closely with industry to ensure we understand what they need in terms of upskilling.”

So what is the big opportunity for Heriot-Watt and the wider DDI programme? Richardson says:

“We need to fully utilise and promote this great combination of university research, business innovation and world-class talent we have within the Edinburgh region. Developing and attracting the best talent will help drive greater productivity in both start-ups and our existing industries.

“This will in turn further enhance Scotland and the UK as a destination for investment.

“The real prize at the core of this is how we shape our future and utilise technology that benefits all. There are huge global markets out there and we are seeing many opportunities in places like Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates where they are developing and investing in a variety of initiatives that drive Industry 4.0.”

Say hello to your new co-bot

Service robots assist human beings, typically by performing roles that are dirty, dull, distant, dangerous or repetitive.

“If you go to the Nissan car plant in Sunderland, it’s full of robots,” says Professor David Lane.

“They are either human-supported or pre-programmed, they are not about data in the sense of data-driven innovation.

“The new generation of service robots have lots more software and data, using sensors to map the world around them and make decisions to achieve goals. They are more sophisticated in controlling their intentions, interacting with people and using a strategic approach to adapt to changing circumstances, and to failure.

“Some such service robots can operate completely autonomously, although under the remote supervision of a human operator.

“For example, in deep marine environments it’s very difficult to communicate with the surface. If the underwater robot is untethered, it has to operate autonomously therefore. In other domains, such as manufacturing, healthcare or construction, robots may work alongside people as co-bots. Here, so called shared-autonomy has the operator being closely involved with the robot’s activity but not controlling everything it does. In some cases, the robot can assist the human by predicting what’s next and handing him or her the right tools – they therefore work together co-operatively.”

Lane adds: “Data is important to robots because they need information about the environment around them, their internal health, and what happened the last time a task was tried.

“Using this data very often involves machine learning to help the robots improve their performance through AI and decision making. Keeping robots safe, predicting and avoiding failures needs this historical data.

However, since robots are operating and controlling physical systems alongside us in the real world, there’s more than just data involved – motors, sensors, materials, systems, connectivity and interaction with people – these are key also.”

For more information, visit the Heriot-Watt website.