Giant robot duel challenge raises stakes for UK mechatronics

Viewpoint

Government and industry must show urgency and agility if Britain is to take a lead in the global market for advanced robotics, says Michael Minall. 

The current focus on the development of giant robots, which is causing a stir ahead of a sporting clash between US and Japanese innovators, is not as far-fetched as it sounds.

In a bid to prove that giant robots are ‘a feasible business’, a team of inventors led by US-owned MegaBots has challenged Japan’s Suidobashi Heavy Industries’ Kuratas robot to a duel. The heavily-promoted contest, which will go ahead in July next year, has already caught the imagination of patriotic spectators and engineers around the world and is helping to raise awareness of ongoing research and development activity in the field of mechatronics.

Originally developed for the purpose of exploring Mars and participating in other space missions, a growing number of innovators now believe that giant robots could find use in many other high-risk applications, such as nuclear de-commissioning contracts and supporting in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as earthquakes. They could also be used during high-risk demolition projects and in sub-sea exploration.

Boston Dynamics' ATLAS robot
Boston Dynamics’ ATLAS robot

Following the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011, the US Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) encouraged the development of disaster-relief technology. The organisation staged a global robotics challenge earlier this year to showcase some of the latest advances through a series of trials testing each robot’s perception, strength and decision-making as well as their ability to manage sustained breaks in communication, which are not uncommon in disaster situations.

Currently, Japan is a world leader in the field of mechatronics, closely followed by the US and South Korea. UK involvement in this area of R&D has been relatively limited, focused on one-off research projects linked to UK Universities such as Loughborough University and the University of Wolverhampton. A general lack of government funding has meant that emerging UK innovators have struggled to achieve the backing needed to develop their research. However, others have proved more successful. For example, London-based Shadow Robotics has been developing some advanced robotic technologies for fruit-picking and cookery applications, with the backing of some competition funding from Innovate UK.

A fresh wave of investor interest surrounding the forthcoming giant robot contest and the Kickstarter Campaign, which was established by MegaBots in partnership with NASA and Howe Technologies to help raise the $500,000 needed to modify its robot, will further fuel innovation activity. However, UK-based innovators will need to demonstrate agility to benefit from this opportunity.

The nature of early-stage mechatronics development means that there is low volume demand for a variety of high-value technologies and systems, and the ability to deliver rapid prototyping is essential. To meet this demand, suppliers based in the UK and elsewhere need to demonstrate their agility and be open to working collaboratively with other parties to develop innovative technologies and features.

As innovators around the world seek to capitalise on the renewed interest in advanced robotics, it is highly likely that they will be looking to research-led companies in the UK to share their know-how and capabilities. UK industry’s strong heritage in research and development, combined with its experience in the area of high-integrity, low volume production means that there are likely to be some great opportunities.

To make the most of any opportunities that come our way, more government funding is urgently needed to underpin this emerging sub sector of research and development activity. In addition, UK innovators specialising in areas such as batteries, activators and software, should be prepared to move quickly and be prepared to collaborate on robotics initiatives.

Michael Minall is director and an industrial sector specialist at Vendigital, a firm of procurement and supply chain specialists.