Realising common solutions – how robotics and driverless technology will bring wider benefits to business

“Money… is none of the wheels of trade: it is the oil which renders the motion of the wheels more smooth and easy,” David Hume, Essays: Moral and Political (1741-2) ‘Of Money’.

Whether you’re a start-up or a 250-year-old company, cash will always be king, but perhaps if David Hume was alive today he would say collaboration and technology are also essential to oil the wheels.

Science Vale UK, in South Oxfordshire, is already proving that the right environment and specialist infrastructure produces successful innovation and enterprise.  Its high concentration of advanced engineering and scientific research companies is attracting strong investment and new collaborations, which will lead to long-term benefits and growth for the region.

Most recently there’s been a wave of investment into companies and facilities based at the Culham Science Centre.  This follows on from the government’s £100 million Connected and Autonomous Vehicles Testing Infrastructure Fund.  The latest funding will help thrust the autonomous vehicle and robotic technology industry forwards, boost expertise and build wealth in the UK economy.

The Remote Applications in Challenging Environments (RACE) facility is one of the major players propelling the next generation of robotic technology forwards.  Last October, they won a share of a £51 million government investment to upgrade the UK’s autonomous vehicle testing infrastructure – one of just four projects involved in MERIDIAN, a driverless vehicle programme.

Using the funding, RACE is teaming up with vehicle test and validation specialists Millbrook Group, to form the Millbrook-Culham Test and Evaluation Environment to create different urban driving environments in Science Vale UK and at Millbrook’s Bedfordshire base.  This will enable engineers and scientists to test the speed and safety of connected and autonomous vehicles, accelerate their research and compete globally in this rapidly growing sector.

“Exciting technologies like self-driving vehicles offer huge opportunities to drive economic growth and improve people’s lives.  Culham Science Centre is a showcase of cutting-edge British organisations who are leading the world in this area.  Innovative, ambitious companies like those here in Oxfordshire are crucial to Britain’s success in the future,” said Elizabeth Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury who recently visited the area.

Other Science Vale companies are also set to reap the benefits of these new collaborations and facilities.  RACE is part of the UK’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) community set up to ensure that ideas and solutions are shared across sectors.

One member of RAS is Oxbotica, a specialist in creating software systems and artificial intelligence for autonomous vehicles.  Oxbotica, who already have a workshop at RACE’s test facility, lead a consortium of ten organisations for the ambitious DRIVEN project that trials fully autonomous vehicles.  The consortium was awarded a £8.6 million grant from Innovate UK to stimulate new technologies and keep the UK at the forefront of autonomous and connected vehicle innovation.

As other technology firms start to test their vehicles at the enhanced RACE facility, it’s likely that further cross-sector collaborations such as in knowledge engineering within artificial intelligence, will develop.

Managed by the UK Atomic Energy Agency, RACE’s primary focus is in nuclear fusion, but its work has expanded into adjacent fields.  Through research and development in intelligent mobility, smart infrastructure and advanced control systems, RACE has found that some robotic technologies have the potential to function in other sectors.

RACE has identified common factors that appear in robotic technology solutions, when running operations in difficult physical environments, such as those with extreme temperatures, others with limited access, vacuum and magnetic fields.  Further research into this area could also open up new collaborations, funding-streams and bring wider business benefits to other sectors.

In a market that is expected to be worth more than £900 billion by 2035, interest and investment in robotic technologies will no doubt continue to rise as other sectors realise its potential.  Whether it’s for robotics to run repetitive business tasks with 100 per cent accuracy, operate projects remotely, or use knowledge engineering to create agile businesses, the potential of robotic technology is the next area to watch.