Technology: Robots are toughening up for the future

Rise of the ‘extremobots’

Robots must be made of sterner stuff if they’re to cope with the kinds of extreme environments they’ll face in the future, writes Mark Cantrell. That’s why robotics experts in the UK are teaming up to design tougher breeds of machine

Manipulation within high-hazard areas in the JET nuclear fusion reactor. Pic courtesy of the University of Liverpool

IN biology, organisms that can tough it out in the harshest environments – boiling water, say – are known as extremophiles; well, research is under way to design the machine equivalents – you might call them the extremobots.

In the case of robots, however, the extreme environments scientists have in mind are more likely to be found in nuclear, offshore, and outer space environments, rather than geothermal rock pools.

Humans, of course, don’t exactly thrive in the highly radioactive environs of nuclear reactors. Even remotely operated robot systems have struggled to cope, notably in the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. But for all the advances in technology since, the 2011 catastrophe at the Fukushima plant in Japan has shown that robot systems are still far from impervious to the hazards they encounter.

That’s where experts in autonomous systems at the University of Liverpool come into the picture; along with a chunk of money they’ve been allocated, to help them develop new, more efficient robot technologies. The aim is to create the tools to reduce human exposure to extreme and hazardous environments. Let the machines take the heat, then, or the airless cold of space, or the crush of the ocean depths.

To design and eventually build these tougher breeds of robot, a number of UK universities and their industrial partners are involved in four research hubs. Liverpool is partnering with three of these. Between them, the hubs have been awarded a total of £44 million to develop hardier robots, along with the artificial intelligence (AI) they’ll need to help them handle extreme conditions.

“This is a unique opportunity to work in large-scale hubs aiming to develop safe, reliable, and effective robotic systems,” said Professor Michael Fisher, from the university’s computer science department. “Liverpool’s leading research expertise puts us at the heart of this work, aiming to improve efficiency while reducing human exposure to the dangers of these extremely hazardous environments.”

The funding is part of the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF), which is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The university says it is set to receive over £2 million research funding through these hubs.

“Liverpool has an internationally-recognised reputation in the field of autonomous systems and our role in three of these collaborative research hubs is a reflection of this,” said Professor Ken Badcock, executive pro vice chancellor for the university’s Faculty of Science and Engineering.

The university is a partner in the RAIN Hub (Robotics and Artificial Intelligence for Nuclear), which is led by the University of Manchester. The hub includes experts in robotics and nuclear engineering from the Universities of Bristol, Lancaster, Nottingham, Sheffield, Oxford, and the UKAEA’s Remote Applications in Challenging Environments (RACE) centre.

The nuclear industry is also involved. Key partners include Sellafield Ltd and EDF Energy, with international partners from the USA, Japan, and Italy, as well as a range of SMEs across the UK.

RAIN is looking to develop innovative technologies that address the challenges posed by the entire nuclear industry, from decommissioning and waste management to fusion, plant life extension and new build, and aims to become an international centre of excellence in nuclear robotics.

The ORCA Hub (Offshore Energy Asset Integrity Management) is led by Heriot-Watt University and aims to use autonomous robotics to revolutionise how the offshore energy sector assesses, repairs, and improves its assets. These include wind turbines, oil rigs, pipelines, and more. It’s claimed that the use of advanced robotics and AI techniques can significantly improve both safety (as humans are removed from offshore hazards) and efficiency in this sector.

As well as Heriot-Watt and Liverpool, the Universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, and Imperial College London complete the academic team. Industrial partners include the Oil and Gas Innovation Centre, the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, and a range of energy companies.

The FAIR-SPACE Hub (Future AI and Robotics Hub for Space) is led by the University of Surrey. In addition to Liverpool, it involves experts from the universities of Edinburgh, Salford and Warwick, as well as Imperial College, London. The hub’s key partners from the space sector include NASA, ESA, UK Space Agency, Satellite Applications Catapult, Chinese Academy of Sciences’ space institutes, and the International Space University.

FAIR-SPACE’s ambition is to establish an international centre of excellence in autonomous space robotics, and drive “more sophisticated and ambitious space exploration and exploitation”.

“These new robotics hubs will draw on the country’s research talent to nurture new developments in the field of robotics and provide the foundations on which innovative technologies can be built,” said Professor Philip Nelson, chief executive of the EPSRC. “The resulting outcomes from this research will allow us to explore environments that are too dangerous for humans to enter without risking injury or ill-health. The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is helping us achieve a joined-up approach to research, discovery and innovation.”

So, it’s time for robots to get tough. But as they get smarter too, let’s just hope they decide to go easy on us. After all, some of those extreme environments they’ll face will be of our own careless making; we’re going to put our creations through hell, just so they can clean up our mess…




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