Campus close-up: Edinburgh Centre for Robotics

Edinburgh University and Heriot-Watt have teamed up to boost UK development in robotic applications

January 1, 2015

Sethu Vijayakumar’s office looks reassuringly like how you would expect the office of a professor of robotics to look. Scattered around the desk are little robots that loosely resemble Transformers toys, and around them is a selection of mechanised prosthetic hands and limbs.

As co-director of the new Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University, Professor Vijayakumar is clearly in his element.

As a child, if there was something mechanical, he wanted to find out what made it move. Trained in maths and physics, he considered going into statistics or computing, but robotics won his heart.

“In robotics, you can tangibly see and test the hypothesis you’ve been developing, on real-world solutions,” he said. “It’s things that move and sense, and that’s my fascination.”

Professor Vijayakumar’s fascination is now a government priority: robotics and autonomous systems have been named among the “eight great technologies” and are receiving funding in the hope that they will drive UK economic growth.

Bringing Heriot-Watt’s traditional strength in engineering and links with industry together with Edinburgh’s expertise in informatics and artificial intelligence, the centre (which opened in September) will be a key part of this initiative.

The centre and its doctoral training programme were funded by a total of £13.2 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, plus industry support.

The aim is to create one of the world’s leading centres for robotics, and Professor Vijayakumar argued that reaching a critical mass will be crucial to achieving that aim. “In many research areas, you can test and do simulations, and one person can make significant progress,” he said. “[But] this requires collaboration and equipment.”

As robotics technology becomes more advanced, its potential applications are vast. Among other things, the Edinburgh team is working to develop more sophisticated sensor and navigation technology for robots that work alongside people in settings such as warehousing. Currently, robots tend to work in segregated areas and will freeze if they encounter an obstacle, reducing their efficiency.

If this technology is improved, they could work alongside humans – and this is the same sort of technology that could eventually give rise to wider use of driverless cars.

Other applications for robotics include the development of joints with variable stiffness, for use in the generation of wind and tidal power, and the creation of an exoskeleton to assist in physiotherapy programmes, Professor Vijayakumar added. Nanorobots in our bodies that release medicine or address changing glucose levels are equally possible.

However, he said that it was difficult to predict precisely where robotics will go next, likening it to the development of mobile phones: a decade ago, before smartphones, few would have predicted that the devices would come to play a ubiquitous role in our lives.

The range of potential applications serves to emphasise the wide range of skills needed for a career in robotics – including the core sciences and maths, alongside programming and mechanical engineering. This is where the centre’s doctoral training programme, which hopes to attract 60 to 70 students over the next five years, comes in. The intention is to cement students’ knowledge in all these areas while giving them more focused expertise.

Professor Vijayakumar acknowledges that many potential applications throw up ethical questions about the role of robots and their interaction with humans. There are also more practical issues – for example, if a driverless car is involved in an accident, who should be held liable?

Professor Vijayakumar said that these are important issues but cautioned against making sweeping judgements. Using drones as an example, he pointed out that improvements in technology will make them much safer to use around other aircraft over time. “[Ethical debates] need to constantly evolve as things develop,” Professor Vijayakumar said.

One thing he was clear on was the need for sustained funding for robotics in the UK, arguing that the initial investment in Edinburgh is only the start. “This is a revolution that’s happening. If it doesn’t happen here, it will happen somewhere else, and it’s hard to catch up because technology moves so fast.”

In numbers

£13.2m funding received by the Centre for Robotics

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