The EU has launched a major bid to give fresh impetus to Europe’s robotics sector, amid warnings that the continent risks falling behind other parts of the world in fast-developing applications of the technology.
The European Robotics Platform (EUROP), which brings together more than 50 industrial and research organisations from across Europe, has been set up in an effort to define a future strategy and tap into the often underexploited knowhow of SMEs working in the sector.
Geoff Pegman, managing director of UK company RU Robots, one of the members of the initiative, claimed that despite the huge amount of expertise in Europe, projects have tended to be fairly disparate, with poorly-defined commercial aims.
The UN’s recently-published World Robotics Survey forecasts a massive worldwide growth over the next few years in the use of both industrial and service robots. But Europe must act quickly if it is to avoid being left behind by the major initiatives underway elsewhere.
Pegman warned that Japan is now the established leader in leisure robotics, while South Korea is setting itself up as a powerhouse in industrial robots, and the US is blazing a trail with military applications for the technology.
While Europe currently has a reasonably healthy industrial robot sector, Pegman said that to stimulate robotics in other areas — such as hospitals, offices, or around the home — a whole new set of technological challenges must be addressed beyond those of the production line.
One of the main hurdles, claimed Pegman, is enabling robots to make sense of their environment and equipping them with some degree of situational awareness. This calls for improved object and human detection as well as high quality and precision control. He added that if robots are to work in less predictable environments than those experienced on the factory floor, they must also have a greater degree of autonomy, and be able to cope with unforeseen situations.
And clearly, if robots are to be working closely alongside humans, then they also have to be intrinsically safe. Pegman said that this is leading engineers to look at the use of new, softer materials that won’t hurt humans in the event of a collision.
‘Rather than big, heavy industrial robots, we’re looking at systems that are compliant,’ he said.
As well as requiring a completely different approach to control, such systems may require flexible and dexterous arms. Engineers must also look at improving human/robot communications. ‘If you’re going to put robots into homes and offices they need to be fairly intuitive in terms of the way you deal with them,’ said Pegman, adding that the next generation of industrial robots will also benefit from more intuitive and efficient instruction schemes.
Pegman emphasised that the role to be played by smaller companies in the EUROP initiative is vital.
‘SMEs should have a specific voice in terms of what actually happens in this initiative. In the past these sort of things have been run by big groups, but in fields such as robotics, it is small firms that come out with many of the breakthroughs that go into a lot of the new markets.’
EUROP would seem to fit the bill. For while it has big names, including Philips, Thales and BAE Systems, 70 per cent of its members are from small firms. These, include medical robotics specialist Acrobot, OC robotics and Pegman’s own company, all of which are based in this country.
‘The UK has a lot to offer in this area — but I don’t think the government sees it as being as important as we do.’