Whilst the UK’s political landscape may be in turmoil after the effects of Brexit (which I will avoid expressing my opinions on here – you’ve probably heard enough!) it’s of an even greater importance to celebrate our contributions to driving technology, industry and our economy forwards. Last week (25th June – 1st July) was the first UK Robotics Week, organised by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) Network, supported by the IET and IMechE and probably other people who have acronyms upon acronyms in their names. It’s been almost a year since I took part in Reading University’s Begin Robotics MOOC and it’s great to see companies and universities reaching out again to bring robotic systems to the general public with so many different opportunities.
There have been a range of activities, conferences and workshops available, aimed at all kinds of audiences from future young engineers to experts and academics. From FIRST LEGO League Jr to Care-o-bots for the elderly, and even a Mancunian Robot Orchestra!
I wasn’t able to attend any this year but here’s a summary of what went on for those who want to look a little further into the subject. If you were able to get to any of the events, let me know what you thought!
Talks and Symposia:
The first media coverage I saw of UK Robotics Week was from the talk Robots: Faithful servants or existential threat? at the Royal Academy of Engineering. The focus was on the ethics of robotics and whether something that obeys coded rules without context is a danger to humans. There is an interesting article from the Mirror called Robots could end up like dangerous dogs if humans don’t learn to train them properly, which shows their angle on the talk, I suppose.
Surrey Technology for Autonomous systems and Robotics (STAR) Lab within one of my favourite universities, Surrey, held an Evening on Space Robotics. The public lectures were be given by space professionals who work on the front line of developing and operating space robotic systems including David Iron, Founder of Lunar Mission One, and Abbie Hutty, Senior Spacecraft Structures Engineer at Airbus Defence and Space. There was also an exhibition showcasing state-of-the-art space robotics including the first European Space Agency’s Mars Rover and the ongoing robotics project at the International Space Station carried out by Tim Peake.
The Hamlyn Symposium for Medical Robotics is an international forum for surgeons and engineers to discuss the latest advances in surgical and medical robotics. It attracts pioneers of the field and researchers from leading Universities from around the world. The symposium includes a series of workshops covering the main themes of surgical robotics.
Towards Autonomous Robotic Systems (or TAROS) 2016 is a 17 year old robotics conference held in Sheffield, covering a broad range of robotics and autonomous systems technologies. The comference featured speakers from around the world, workshops and paper submissions on the subject. The IET lecture on Developmental Robotics for Embodied Language Learning by Professor Angelo Cangelosi from Plymouth University was also open to the public.
This week (4th – 7th July), Imperial College London will be hosting Eurohaptics 2016, which is a major international conference for academics and researchers on haptics and touch enabled computer applications, and the primary European meeting for researchers in this field.
Demonstrations and Events:
The Educational Robotics Hackathon was a two week long open event for ages 18+, sponsored by Ocado Technology. Its aim was for teams to design and prototype robots to be used in a educational setting for kids, parents and teachers. The designs were judged on being educational, engaging and fun whilst also being easy to use when teaching the principles of robotics. The aim was to design something that makes a real difference to teaching and that inspires children to understand and enjoy robotics, engineering and technology as a whole.
Universities such as Sheffield, Leeds and Plymouth also held open lab events to introduce students and members of the public to their autonomous systems, including workshops for kids to start building their own and inspiring the next generation of young engineers.
UK Robotics Week teams were present at Cheltenham Science Festival and London Tech Weekend. Plus, the atBristol Science Centre welcomed in The Tortoises: modern robots based on William Grey Walter’s experiments to show how behaviours of simple robotic machines can seem complex and lifelike in a similar fashion to Valentino Braitenberg’s Vehicles. If you still want to see some of the Bristol Robotics Lab robots, the Science Centre has a Superhuman Lab event running until mid September with a 3D printed bionic hand which mimics your movements.
The week ended with the International Robotics Showcase held at the IET’s Savoy Place in London. With talks from international university professors (Harvard’s Prof Robert Howe, Tsukuba’s Yoshiyuki and Khalifa’s Jorge Manuel Miranda Dias), industry professionals and even ESA astronaut Roberto Vittori, I am gutted to have missed this and hold high expectations for next year. The exhibition floor also looked very impressive, with my favourite being the adorable Miro biomimetic companion robot below. It’s even more lovable because of the build-it-yourself design and teaching experience Robert McGrath talked about in his post: Self-assembly affects user experience of robots.
For me, the most important parts of Robotics Week were the 4 interactive challenges. For school children aged 4 to 18, they were tasked with designing a robot bug on paper, turning it into a 3D model and teaching it how to move using free bespoke software. Schools can also choose to 3D print the models for students, closing the whole design process and giving the kids something to take home whilst also teaching them coding, modelling and prototyping biologically inspired robotics. What a great idea!
The Autonomous Driving Challenge follows a similar process and was open to everyone. Draw your own racetrack and vehicle, make them into 3D models and program how your car will drive itself around without a driver. I had a go at this one from home. It’s a simple introductory task, but involves a lot of different concepts, is a lot of fun and the free software is pretty impressive. If you want to have a look for yourself or your kids, the resources are currently still available over at http://www.autodrivechallenge.org/.
For postgrad students, academics and researchers looking for a greater challenge, there were competitions based on Surgical Robots and Agricultural Field Robotics. The first was supported by Intuitive Surgical and KUKA Robotics, with a total £10,000 prize fund, and focused on research teams developing their own medical robots to be used in surgery. Teams had 3 hours to set up their design and demonstrate it to a panel of experts in robotics and leading surgeons with a presentation and technical Q&A.
The Field Robotics Challenge was hosted by Sheffield Robotics as part of TAROS 2016 and focuses on real world agricultural scenarios including surveying at high and low levels and ground sampling. Teams need to develop control software and collect and process data from air and ground robots. Some impressive robots were shown here and it looks like it went well, even with the first day being called off for typical British weather.
You can still access the resources for some of the challenges above and details of further events in the field can be found in the UK Robotics Week program, here.
Overall, the week was a great success and it was a total shame that it, along with National Women in Engineering Day, was so overshadowed by the EU Referendum business. I can’t wait to see the event evolve and get involved myself next year!