Edinburgh’s Universities Lead Robotics and Automation Efforts in Scotland

Robotics Business Review

From James Clerk Maxwell to James Watt to Alexander Fleming to Lord Kelvin, Scotland has given the world many of its greatest and most innovative scientists. This grand tradition continues unabated in today’s robotics age, as Edinburgh’s universities are educating the next generation of robotics and automation experts, and bolstering these industries in Scotland as they go.

Robotics and automation innovation in Scotland is strong and gaining momentum as engineers and other experts from around the world head to the country’s educational institutions and businesses to create new technologies and improve existing systems and tools.

John Swinney, deputy first minister and cabinet secretary for finance, constitution and economy recognized these institutions as he introduced a new action plan framework for Scottish industry, stating “We must develop a manufacturing proposition that embraces new digital technology, products and services … and make use of the skills available in Scotland, particularly the talent in our universities and colleges.”

Research and education led by Edinburgh’s universities

Scotland’s government and industries spanning multiple fields are eagerly looking to the country’s schools and research organizations to supply a new generation of robot and automation experts and innovators. Edinburgh, a world center for education and research since medieval times, is rapidly becoming Scotland’s robotics and automation focus point.

Edinburgh's universities, such as the University of Edinburgh (pictured) are turning Edinburgh into a robotics hub

The University of Edinburgh is only one of Edinburgh’s universities helping to turn into a destination for robotics researchers and students. (Credit: Univ. of Edinburgh)

The University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics is Scotland’s robotics and automation education and research hub. With more than 450 academic and research staff members and over 850 students, the school is the largest institution of its type in the U.K. and one of the largest in Europe.

The school also claims to be among the top five world-leading centers of research and teaching in computation, information and cognition. Current undergraduate and postgraduate courses and degree programs include informatics, computer science, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, computational linguistics and software engineering.

The school’s primary robotics and automation unit, the Statistical Machine Learning and Motor Control Group, focuses multiple aspects of robot motion synthesis, including planning and representation as well as actuator design and control.

The group’s researchers utilize techniques from the fields of probabilistic inference and learning, stochastic optimal control, reinforcement learning and large-scale optimization to address real world, real-time problems in anthropomorphic robotic systems.

Heriot-Watt University is another one of Edinburgh’s universities offering an extensive number of robotics/automation research and education programs. The university’s School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences (MACS) operates a robotics lab that focuses on interdisciplinary research applied to autonomous intelligent robotics and human-robot interaction.

The lab’s research activities includes cross-disciplinary investigations in several areas, such as biologically inspired algorithms, evolutionary algorithms, swarm intelligence, psychology, machine learning, data mining, computational neuroscience and cognitive science, among other areas.

Edinburgh Center for Robotics

Heriot-Watt recently joined with the University of Edinburgh to create the Edinburgh Center for Robotics, a four-year PhD training program that provides students with a strong general grounding in current theory, methods and applications instruction combined with flexible, individualized study and a specialized PhD project.

The center’s staff includes 30 global investigators from 12 cross-disciplinary research groups at the two host institutions. Interest areas include movement control, computer vision, robotic planning and decision making, bio- and neurorobotics, healthcare applications, neuroprosthetics, underwater robotics, bipedal walking, human-robot interaction, service robots, robotic co-workers, speech processing, computer animation realistic simulations and machine learning.

NASA's Valkyrie humanoid robot is held at the Edinburgh Center for Robotics, a partnership between two of Edinburgh's universities

NASA’s Valkyrie, one of the world’s most advanced humanoid robots, is a focus of research at the Edinburgh Center for Robotics. (Credit: NASA)

One of the center’s primary goals is the development of innovation-minded researchers and engineers who are capable of making fundamental advances in the theory and development of robotics technology. The center also looks to produce graduates who have the skills needed to transform technological and operational advances into new products, services and businesses.

In addition, staff members strive to give their students a broad appreciation of the ethical issues associated with the robotics and autonomous systems.

The center’s staff and students are particularly interested in creating new ways of enabling robots to interact with surrounding environments, including seeing, mapping, touching, grasping, manipulating and balancing. Center investigators are also looking into how robots can be made to understand human moods and emotions via various sensory pathways such as sight, touch, speech and gestures.

One of the center’s major projects is focused on the NASA Valkyrie, one of the world’s most advanced humanoid robots. The robot, built by NASA at the Johnson Space Center in 2015, was delivered to the University of Edinburgh in Spring 2016. Valkyrie, which stands 1.8 meters tall (5.9 feet) and weighs 125 kilograms (276 pounds), is designed to help the center’s student and staff researchers make breakthroughs in humanoid control, motion planning and perception.

A future-proof plan

A combination of Edinburgh’s universities, and the the development of a startup culture or private robotics sector, could see Edinburgh develop into the next robotics hub built around leading universities, similar to those found in Boston and Pittsburgh in the United States, or Delft and Odense in Europe.

And by investing in education and research in addition to manufacturing, Edinburgh is setting itself up to continue its regional dominance in robotics and automation for a long time to come, as the city’s university graduates help fuel the ongoing growth of the private sector, one which is expected to maintain its rapid growth in the coming years.

In my next article we will explore the companies driving Scotland’s robotics and automation focus, including a return to its maritime history with autonomous underwater vehicles.

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