Commissioner Viviane Reding: Advanced Robotics: why Europe needs to catch up in this strategic sector

October 10, 2005

Brussels, 7 October 2005

Official launch of the Technology Platform EUROP (European Robotics Platform)
Brussels, 7 October 2005

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here with you today for the launch of the European Technology Platform on Robotics. I welcome this initiative and in particular the commitment of industry to invest together in research and to innovate in a field that is essential for the productivity and competitiveness of many manufacturing and service sectors in Europe.

I would also like to say today why I see advanced robotics at the core of technologies for serving European citizens and for reinforcing growth and jobs in Europe.

Where have we come from?

From the 60s, robots have been installed in automotive, electronic and other high-volume production industries for automating many manufacturing tasks. They were programmed to work day and night, performing highly repetitive or heavy tasks. They brought higher productivity, more flexibility and better product quality.

They were seen as replacing blue-collar workers in factories, and as causes of massive layoffs and unemployment. In retrospect, however, they were part of a revolution which moves us to a knowledge society with better, clearer and safer work and more efficient productive industry. As a result we still have in Europe a strong and competitive automotive industry and a flourishing and competitive European robotics industry.

Where are we today?

We are all fascinated by the rovering robots that explore the planet Mars and the wreck of the Titanic. We were all relieved when robots successfully intervened in stopping the oil spill from the wreck of the Prestige tanker off the Spanish Atlantic coast and in saving lives in the sunken Russian submarine off the Pacific coast of Russia.

Robots are also acquiring better social skills: they team together to play football; they cooperate with workers at the workplace; they can become your electronic pet; they entertain children. These changes are made possible by the progress of technologies such as sensing, cognition and control. This calls for strong collaboration between researchers in different disciplines. This development is technologically fascinating today, but is and economic and societal imperative for tomorrow.

As you know, the Lisbon agenda calls for a more competitive Europe, the only way to sustain our unique social model. Europe needs to adjust to fast changing economic realities. We need to achieve higher economic growth through more innovation and higher productivity, whilst creating more jobs. We need also to address many societal challenges, the ageing population, the well being of our society, and the need for security. These are at the heart of the new Lisbon agenda and occupy a central place in my i2010 initiative.

Robotics will contribute to these challenges.

Robots as assistants at work and increasingly at home will perform tasks that would be impossible, unsafe or unhealthy for a person to attempt. They have the potential to carry out intelligent tasks with people, and for the service of people, rather than replacing people.

Where are we going?

  • For industrial robots, prices of robots need to come down. In this way, production costs in Europe can be further reduced. This can help keep investment and jobs in Europe. It is estimated that only 15% of possible applications are currently automated.
  • We need better interoperability and economies of scale. This essential benefit can only be brought through cooperation between all the actors from different market segments.
  • We need to demonstrate practical benefits for citizens. For example, healthcare robots to assist surgeons, bringing greater accuracy and reliability. Robots to assist our ageing society to grow older with dignity. I am not thinking of “humanoid” servants but of assistive technologies to help people to live normal lives as they get older.
  • Robots to improve the security of our citizens, to monitor our borders and survey our infrastructures and our public utilities.
I am convinced that under the right conditions, such robots having diverse forms will penetrate many of our everyday activities, just as mobile phones and computers are doing today. But for this to happen, we will need to make the new services and functions that these robots will bring much more visible. This is a job of communication that we have to do together.

Our key competitors are progressing fast

Our key competitors in this field, the USA, Japan and Korea, are progressing fast. They have already made large R&D investments in robotics. Their objective is clear: to build their new robotics industries and to prepare markets for new robotic products and services.

In Europe, we are also well positioned: we are leading in industrial robotics and in system engineering and we are starting to address new markets. We have a world-class scientific and technical base in many underpinning technologies. This is well-acknowledged. We have leading industrial players in their market segments and high-tech SMEs in their niche markets. However we are missing in Europe common approach to the development of standardised modules.

The Commission has proposed a stronger financial basis for investing in research. However some Member States seem reluctant to see Europe achieving the levels of investment that would put us alongside the other global leaders. You the industry have a role in explaining to governments the importance of adequate resources for research and innovation. The time to act is now, before the Union’s Financial Perspectives for the coming years are adopted.

Conclusion

Your companies come from different sectors – manufacturing, consumer goods, services, security and space. But all have decided to combine their efforts in this platform, to define jointly a strategic agenda for research in robotics. Your message is clear: the relevant public authorities could do better to articulate their support to research and to innovation in this field. As for the Commission, I can assure you that my services have already taken the appropriate steps in that direction.

My role and the role of my services is to facilitate these industry-led initiatives. We are willing to support and to advise, but it is up to you to do the work and to make the Robotics Platform a success.

Openness, transparency and joint work in defining the strategic research agenda of this platform will contribute to the success of your initiative.

The benefits should not be restricted to a small group of lead players. Indeed, in your platform, there are many SMEs involved. I hope this platform will facilitate them becoming our large companies of tomorrow.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to conclude by confirming my belief that this Platform is both a challenge and an opportunity.

This is a challenge for our researchers to further explore the crossroads between research in natural and artificial systems. They will have to venture across boundaries between various disciplines to achieve breakthroughs in communicating between artificial systems and people. But this is a challenge also for our industry. Europe has very strong brand names but companies outside Europe are often faster to adapt their business models to new market dynamics.

Industry can maintain Europe’s leading position in industrial robotics and put Europe into a lead position in creating new markets. But, again, for that it needs the support of policy makers.

That you, business leaders in your sectors, are uniting your efforts around a common strategy is a very positive sign. I encourage you to go further, to take the unique opportunity now to develop jointly the strategic research agenda that will lead to innovation and to better jobs in Europe. This will lead to a strong positioning of Europe in the nascent and exciting robotics markets to come.

Item source: SPEECH/05/583 Date: 07/10/2005 Previous Item Back to Titles Print Item

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