A two-legged robot that can run faster than Usain Bolt. A robotic arm that can catch a baseball. A Japanese robot having a kick-about with Barack Obama. The pace of change in robotics is rapid – these were all reported in the last month. Exciting times!

Exciting or scary?

At the same time there was a debate at the UN on autonomous killer robots. We should stress these don’t actually exist at the moment so the debate was on whether current international law sufficiently covers their use or if they should be pre-emptively banned.

Good or evil, humanoid or otherwise, robots have fascinated humanity for almost 100 years. Today more than ever they are impacting business, science and society so we lift the lid on some of the ways robots are being used in research and development and beyond.

Robotics R&D

Developing robotics is a huge area of R&D. Here in the UK the largest robotics centre is in our very own Bristol.

The Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) is a collaboration between Bristol University and The University of the West of England (UWE). Their state of the art laboratory covers an area over 3,000 square metres and features specialist workshops, wet labs and two flying arenas.

The BRL research portfolio shows the scope of research into robotics. It includes:

  • embedded intelligence,

  • autonomous robot systems,

  • human-robot interaction,

  • energy autonomy,

  • collective locomotion,

  • tactile sensors and haptic feedback systems,

  • motion tracking/positioning systems,

  • unmanned aerial vehicles,

  • swarming behaviour,

  • dependability,

  • wearable and pervasive systems,

  • medical and rehabilitation robotics,

  • machine vision,

  • and bio-inspired architectures.

BRL is an academic institution but one that has strong ties with business. Given that for a business to qualify for valuable R&D tax credits it needs to demonstrate innovation and uncertainty when developing new products and processes, BRL’s portfolio shows there is vast potential in this area.

Drones maintaining planes

One real-world example BRL is working on is with Easyjet. The airline is developing flying drones to inspect its fleet of Airbus aircraft. The drones are set to operate with high definition video cameras and lasers to scan the outside of the aircraft.

The idea is that they can monitor hard to reach areas of the aircraft thus removing the need for humans to go up on a rig – saving time and reducing safety risk.

An interesting problem that the R&D needs to overcome is how the drones can operate in windy conditions. Researchers plan to turn to nature in a bid to overcome this problem by studying how birds and insects cope.

From Silicon Gorge to Silicon Valley

A more clandestine robotics laboratory is run by Google under the umbrella of its Google X project. Google X is where Google ‘shoots for the moon’ with long-term, game changing research. It is semi-secret – it has no website for instance and employees tend to only speak off the record.

The R&D here goes far beyond robotics – driverless cars and elevators into space for example. By comparison the robotics seem fairly tame, with reports of robots being developed to perform mundane tasks at home and in the workplace like making coffee or operating a copier. The benefit being that humans can then spend time on more important tasks or work remotely. You can read more about Google X here.

How robots are pushing R&D

As we have seen, robots can be used to do tasks that would be dangerous to humans, repetitive or mundane, and also perform actions that humans themselves can’t do. These functions can all be invaluable to companies conducting R&D.

Stepping in to do the mundane

Ikea proudly shows off a robotic bottom in its stores that reveals to customers how they have tested the durability of their armchairs with the sitting down motion repeated thousands of times. Perfect work for a robot? In fact Ikea’s furniture testing process makes extensive use of robotics.

Realising the impossible

Robots can go places that humans can’t and this means that they can open up entirely new avenues of research. In pharma for instance the development of nanoscale robots has led to research into new ways of treating molecular damage to the human body. These tiny robots can explore the body on a scale that humans could not do on their own and could in the future take biopsies, repair good cells and destroy bad ones – preventing the need for some invasive surgeries. The world’s smallest nanometer is capable of running faster than a jet engine.

Safety first – taking humans out of the firing line

The Yeti is low cost but effective robot designed to map surfaces in the Antarctic. It uses ground penetrating radar and GPS to detect dangerous areas in temperatures of up to -30 degrees Celsius. These can then be relayed back to the robot’s human masters significantly reducing their exposure to danger.

As well as working in inhospitable terrains robots are also help protect humans in research when working with hazardous materials.

Will life imitate art?

Robots generally have a bad rap in literature and film. From the moment that Czech play-writer Karel Capek coined the word robot in his 1920 work R.U.R. they have frequently been portrayed as machines that rise up to overthrow their human creators.

Through our work in surveying the R&D landscape we do see robots becoming increasingly pervasive. But this is no invasion. Robots are genuinely useful in both R&D and then real-life application. They are making life less mundane, safer, providing new opportunities and allowing us to achieve things that were once impossible.

If you want to explore the use of robotics in an R&D tax credit claim call ForrestBrown on 0117 926 9022 or go here.

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