Interview: Prof Chris Melhuish, director, Bristol Robotics Laboratory

 Chris Melhuish

The director of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory wants to take UK robotics to the next level

From the hulking industrial robots guarding its main entrance, to the sinister humanoid torsos slumped beneath dust-sheets – not to mention the assorted heads, limbs, and drones competing for space on its shelves – there’s something of the scifi film set about the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL).

It’s an impression, however, that’s dispelled after just a few minutes with the lab’s director, Prof Chris Melhuish.

Indeed, BRL, which has emerged as the UK’s key centre of excellence in one of the world’s most important emerging technology areas, has its eyes set firmly on developing the technologies that will transform not fiction, but reality, in the years ahead.

Bristol Robotics Laboratory
The lab’s research spans a number of areas of robotics

A joint initiative between the University of West England (UWE) and the University of Bristol, the lab was founded by Melhuish in 2004 in an effort to pull together the region’s disparate groups of robotics expertise. Today, it’s the UK’s largest multi-disciplinary robotics research centre – its 4,600m2 is home to around 200 researchers – and is at the forefront of government-funded efforts to put UK robotics know-how on the world stage. Perhaps uniquely for the field in the UK, the facility also boasts an incubator space where companies spun out from the lab’s research, as well as robotics start-ups from further afield, are given space to move to the next level.

Hurriedly shepherding The Engineer around the lab’s ‘themed’ open-plan spaces, Melhuish paused to pose – and then answer – a rhetorical question: “What is a robot?” he asked. “We have to move away from the concept that it’s a sandwich-making machine or a welding system. It’s not. We tend to think of them as aluminium and plastic, but they could well be biological. If you can control the behaviour of a bacterium it’s just a device isn’t it? The portfolio of activity and applications is immense.”

It’s a broad definition space that’s reflected by the diversity of projects the group’s involved in: from swarm robotics, soft robotics, UAVs, driverless cars and surgical robots, to haptics, ethics and even carnivorous energy autonomous robots.

Perhaps one of the most immediately obvious areas of research though, largely thanks to the mock bungalow that dominates the centre of the lab, is the development of assisted-living technology.

The UK, along with many other developed nations, is home to a growing ageing population. And technologies that enable people to remain in their own homes for as long as possible are going to become critical, said Melhuish: “If you talk to NHS managers they’re saying give them stuff that keeps people out of hospitals, free up the beds. Will it be solved by lots of care workers? Probably not. You’re going to need technology to assist and we’re trying to do something about that.”

BR has emerged as the UK’s key centre of excellence in one of the world’s most important emerging technology areas

The bungalow, or the Anchor Robotics Personalised Assisted Living Studio to be precise, has been designed to test and develop these technologies in a realistic environment. Projects that the facility has been involved in include the EU-funded I-Dress initiative, which is developing robotic systems to help patients dress themselves; and Mobiserv, which is looking at creating a robot companion for older people that will remind them when to take medicines, and even suggest activities.

In a related field, BRL is also looking at helping the health sector through the development of a range of medical technologies: from a teleoperated minimally invasive robot that puts broken bones back together without the need for open surgery, through to MUbot: an ingestible capsule that could be piloted around the body and used to carry our targeted drug delivery.

Another research theme is looking at the area of soft robotics, a discipline that’s changing traditional perceptions of what a robot actually looks like. “If we’re going to have robots we don’t want them all to be hard and heavy,” said Melhuish. “Using different types of materials, the potential is that you can conflate sensing and actuation – and even carry out processing and communications in the materials themselves.”

But despite grouping its research into a distinct series of themes, none of these areas are studied in isolation. In fact, many of the group’s key areas of research cut across multiple themes. “One of the great features here is that we actively work against things being siloed,” said Melhuish.

One major cross-cutting theme is connectivity, a field that touches on just about every area of technology BRL is involved in, not least its work on driverless cars. “There are great strides being made in having an autonomous vehicle go up and down the road… but that’s not going to solve a city’s transport problem,” said Melhuish. “You need a lot of them. So it’s a system. And we’re interested in how you connect the system together.”

Connectivity is also at the heart of the group’s work on swarming robotics, where it’s looking at creating systems that mimic the distributed intelligence found, for instance, in the insect world. “You could argue that an ant’s a miracle of evolution,” said Melhuish. “It’s not as sophisticated as a human and yet collectively they’re able to do phenomenal things such as survive for 100 million years. They have decentralised intelligence and we’re trying to understand the principles of collective systems to be able to make very simple things do interesting and useful things.”

Anchor Robotics Personalised Assisted Living Studio
Inside the Anchor Robotics Personalised Assisted Living Studio

Perhaps one of the most important areas of cross-cutting research is in the development of artificial intelligence that enables truly meaningful communication between robots and humans. Whether they’re driving our cars, or working alongside surgeons, to really deliver on their promise, said Melhuish, robots will need to understand the hidden cues of human communication: the physical and vocal ticks that indicate our true feelings.

In general, Melhuish prefers not to be too proscriptive about the direction the group’s research takes. He describes his role as “looking over the parapet”. Nevertheless, it’s not simply a case of research for the sake of research. “I stress the idea of academic excellence and I don’t have a problem with curiosity but if we’re going to get value out of it we need to combine skills with innovation. It makes no sense to me that the end goal is just the knowledge. We need the mind-set for these young imaginative minds to think they could make a business.”

The lab’s incubator model has already delivered some key successes in this regard. Most recently, Reach Robotics, an AR and gaming specialist spun out in 2013, secured a £5.8m investment to commercialise its MekaMon intelligent gaming robot.

Much has been made of the UK’s robotics expertise by successive governments. Former science minister David Willetts identified robotics as one of the “eight great technologies” that would shape the UK economy and the field remains a key plank of the current government’s industrial strategy.

Nevertheless, Melhuish is concerned that the UK is in danger of being left behind. “We do well,” he said, “but we’re not the leading figure in robotics. I go to a lot of events around the world and I see a huge amount of investment elsewhere. We can’t afford some form of post-colonial hubris in the UK that somehow we have the monopoly on creativity and imagination. We should be worried and frightened, and we should be investing because the rest of the world is. This is where we should be putting billions, because it’s about the future. I’m very grateful that the government has come up with £100m but it’s only £100m over four years… it’s not much.”