On eve of British election, robotics and automation remains on sidelines

The Robot Report

Britain is set to go to the polls on Dec. 12, and to many it feels like a particularly momentous election. But beyond the issues of Brexit and the nature of the British role in an increasingly turbulent world, there is a question regarding the revival of industry, and rediscovering Britain’s place as a key innovator in the invention, manufacturing and deployment of new technologies. The decline of the U.K.’s industry relative to other countries has been a long-term problem, papered over by uneven growth within the financial sector. As the country moves into uncharted waters, becoming competitive in productivity growth through robotics and automation will be central to affirming and securing Britain’s economic future.

The various political parties do address the need to seriously recalibrate the British economy, but are currently prioritizing other issues. Not surprisingly, the Labour party is offering the most upfront money to invest in British industry, with £400 billion sidelined for “national transformation”, and a commitment to increase research and development spending to 3.0% of GDP by 2030, which is still less than Israel or South Korea.

But much of this investment is intermingled with environmental and climate change policy, hence the “green industrial revolution.” Whatever the merits of wind, solar, carbon capture and hydrogen technologies, their impact is not projected to be anywhere as dramatic on productivity or output as the technologies that defined the previous revolutions; notably steam engines, electric motors, the internal combustion engine, jet propulsion and computing. In many cases, they are less efficient than current energy sources such as fossil fuels and nuclear. Regardless of what one thinks of the urgency of climate change, its emphasis in the Labour manifesto is linked to what should be a separate strategic aim of the British government; namely increasing its share of manufacturing output and technology leadership relative to other developed countries.

If the Labour manifesto’s focus on “green” muddies the water on technology innovation, the Conservative party’s manifesto buys into exactly the same message, but stresses financial prudence. In other words, they are being less definitive on financial commitments, talking instead about unleashing potential. There is much discussion on rejuvenating ailing industries, such as ship-building, but not much detail about how to get there.

The lack of interest regarding robotics, one of the key technologies that will define industry going forward, is that it never gets explicitly mentioned in the Labour manifesto, and only once in the Tory manifesto: “We will focus our efforts on areas where the U.K. can generate a commanding lead in the industries of the future – life sciences, clean energy, space, design, computing, robotics and artificial intelligence.” This statement indicates a stubborn refusal to accept that the U.K. has lagged in the deployment of robotics. Without more clarity coming from both major parties, this will continue regardless of who wins on Dec. 12.

On both sides, there is profound ignorance on this topic. Phillip Hammond, vulnerable to the preposterous acclamations of tech gurus and Silicon Valley hucksters, warned people to start retraining in lieu of fully driverless cars in 2021. That prospect is unlikely to emerge any time before 2030, and physical drivers will likely still be critical. Meanwhile, David Gauke MP suggested that any attempt to reverse the offshoring of British manufacturers would have no employment benefits due to them all being automated, which clearly contradicts Britain’s negative correlation between manufacturing employment and limited robot deployment relative to other economies. Meanwhile, the desire to tax robots will not benefit workers, and will hamper productivity growth.

Well behind other nations

The U.K. has historically lagged in the field of robotics, especially in relation to competitor economies on the European continent, particularly Germany, but also compared to North American and East Asian economies. Far from an isolated phenomenon, the lack of robotics deployment in the U.K. coincides with decades of relative industrial stagnation.

The U.K. is peripheral for the robotics industry when simply looking at shipment figures. Reasons for this include a decline in manufacturing relative to the rest of the world, a lack of solid investment growth, failure to develop a coherent and long-term industrial policy, and a limited number of domestic companies championing robots.

This shows up in shipment statistics. According to ABI Research, while Europe was the destination for 16.2% of industrial robot shipments in 2019, the U.K. was home to just 0.9%. Installations for industrial robots went down by 3%, or 2,306, from 2017 to 2018. This occurred at the same time that growth in the European Union reached 12%. When it comes to robot density, the U.K. ranks 22nd worldwide, with a density of 85 units per 10,000 manufacturing workers, equivalent to the global average. China, despite having a much larger manufacturing workforce, overtook the U.K. on this important metric in 2017, and is currently ranked 21st, with 97 units per 10,000 manufacturing workers.

A surprisingly impressive company ecosystem

Despite an underwhelming record of established industry metrics, the U.K. has some strong points in robotics. At the startup level, Britain’s landscape is quite healthy. Based on ABI Research’s 2018 investment monitor, when accounting for private venture capital funding in robotics, the U.K. is a hot destination, with $125.8 million invested in British robot startups. Only the U.S., China, and Singapore saw more VC funding for robotics companies.

The relative health of innovative British robotics startups is exemplified by the list of recipients of funding from VC firm Britbots, one of the most notable incubators for British-made robotics.

Most people know about Boston Dynamics and marveled at its mammal-like robots, and some enthusiasts have heard of ANYbotics, which is producing a similar set of robots in Switzerland. The U.K., too, is home to a quadruped developer in the form of ZOA Robotics.

The ZOA robot, named Zeta, is only at the alpha/beta stage of development, but it can already perceive and climb stairs. In addition to its flexibility and adaptability in different environments, the robot is less expensive, a major advantage. While Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini costs close to $100,000, and the ANYbotics platform approaches $250,000, a single ZOA robot costs £29,000 (approximately $36,000). This price will only go down with further iterations. ZOA uses custom electronics and drives for its hardware, but pays most of its attention to developing its proprietary software stack, built on C+ and Python). For navigation, ZOA uses Visual Simultaneous Location and Mapping (vSLAM), augmented by the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), instead of lidar sensor. Like many other companies, ZOA is hoping to develop a robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) business model. It currently controls its robot by teleoperation, but this represents a stepping stone toward increased autonomy.

While ZOA is developing mobile quadrupeds, collaborative robot developer Automata, funded by industrial giant ABB, has developed an effective cobot arm called Eva, priced at £8,000 ($10,510). The Eva cobot achieves this effective price decrease from the cobot average of $25,000 due to an innovative proprietary drive that acts a cost-effective alternative to the industry-standard Harmonic Drive hardware. The company does a lot of machine-tending, exemplified by its deployment for Qualitetch, a U.K.-based manufacturer of specialized metal components for products ranging from satellites to hairdryers. Qualitetch’ s implementation of Eva uses a four-cup vacuum gripper to safely and accurately pick up metal sheets and place them on a conveyor belt.

Another example of mobile robotics being deployed for new use cases is Birmingham-based Hausbots, which develops robots for exterior building painting. Just coming out of the prototyping stage, the company is developing a mobile platform that can dispense paint and coating onto buildings for a variety of purposes. Hausbots expects demand will be driven by the large number of buildings with substandard damp-proofing or coating to prevent decay and damp. The standard way to address this is to hire a large number of contractors to manually apply coating. This can be very expensive, especially when extrapolated throughout a whole city, so any country that can automate the process is likely to reap benefits. Like ZOA, Hausbots relies heavily on the Robot Operating System (ROS) as the middleware for its OS, and it also plans to develop a RaaS model.

British hardware innovation is not limited to ground robots. Drone manufacturer H Robotics is developing ruggedized drone technology. While many drones being adopted for the commercial space differ little from consumer products, H Robotics has developed an advanced multirotor drone with a 45-minute flight time, a payload of up to 6 kg, and a top speed of 100 km/hour. Their main customers are mining firms that use the drones for security, volumetric analysis of aggregates, and monitoring and surveying, particularly in Africa. In a bid to win new clients, H Robotics is offering its data services for free for the first year.

E-commerce champion

While these startups are pushing innovative technologies, they remain small, and need to be complemented by interested end users and larger technology adopters. The most well-known and significant champion of robotics adoption in the U.K. has not been a manufacturer, but rather an e-commerce giant: online grocery provider Ocado, which is automating its stores with several robotic solutions. This U.K. supermarket is the only grocery retailer in Europe, besides Amazon, that develops its own robotics technology. The firm has made heavy investments in R&D of automation technologies, which has not only dramatically improved efficiency at four of its own Customer Fulfillment Centers (CFCs), but also opened additional revenue streams. Ocado licensed its patented technology to other supermarket firms, including Morrisons (U.K.), Groupe Casino (France), ICA (Sweden), and Sobeys (Canada). In 2018, Ocado announced an exclusive U.S. partnership with Kroger, which will deploy Ocado’s robotic solutions to more than 20 automated warehouses across the country, with the first facility costing $55 million. Ocado’s robotics offering consists of a 3D grid that contains fresh and non-perishable products that are picked from above by a fleet of autonomous robots that communicate over a custom 4G network.

Ocado’s moves in robotics have gone beyond fixed automation. In 2017, it completed a trial for autonomous delivery vans, in conjunction with robot developer Oxbotica. Spun out of Oxford University, Oxbotica is a British Autonomy Solution Provider (ASP) that deploys its Selenium software stack to help automate vehicles, much in line with similar offerings from Brain Corp, BlueBotics, and Stocked Robotics. A unique feature of Oxbotica is that it relies on lidar and radar sensors for all its solutions, hence its strategic partnership with U.K.-radar sensor provider Navtech Radar.

The beginning of a strategy

These examples show that the U.K. is a hotbed of early-stage research in robotics, with a strong ecosystem for early stage development. Through light-touch government direction, there are four established U.K. robotic hub organizations, led by various university collaborations to help developed advanced robotic solutions in very challenging use cases:

  • The Robotics and Artificial Intelligence for Nuclear Hub (RAIN): An alliance of robotics and nuclear engineering experts, alongside representatives from RACE (Remote Applications in Challenging Environments), a robotics test facility near Oxford.
  • The National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR): Focuses on robotics for nuclear decommissioning, radioactive waste management, and site monitoring: complementary skills and applications to the work of RAIN, but with some crossover.
  • The National Hub on Future AI & Robotics for Space (FAIR-SPACE): led by the University of Surrey with more than 30 international partners.
  • The Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets (ORCA) Hub: The long-term aim is to create completely autonomous, self-maintaining installations – a strategic vision shared by several oil and gas companies. There are suggestions that BP will automate a large number of its offshore facilities over the next five years.

The four hubs were created to speed U.K. research out of universities and into new commercial partnerships, with funding through U.K. Research and Innovation (UKRI) as part of its Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund’s (ISCF) Robotics for a Safer World challenge. This has channeled more than £93 million ($115 million) of government funds into developing robotic solutions for extreme environments. Funding for robotics in harsh environments plays to the U.K.’s strengths: very little commercialization, and very little need to scale, but lots of talent.

Outside of public and private research, the broader government push for the U.K.’s future economic outlook (of which robotics will play an increasingly important part), is distilled into the four challenges outlined in its latest industrial strategy document:

  • The future of mobility
  • AI and data
  • Clean growth
  • The aging society

While this prioritizes the U.K.’s legitimate challenges and strengths, it falls short on detail. The U.K. does not need to follow China’s industrial policy example of setting targets for the amount of servo motors produced domestically (or similar detailed goals), but should consider its funding and adoption vs. its European counterparts. New circumstances due to Brexit will likely disrupt the manufacturing investment cycle in the short term, but in the long run it could shift the economy to a phase of internal development in order to compete internationally on a bigger scale.

New public infrastructure funding from both parties would certainly help spur investment into capital equipment. Ultimately, however, it is likely that the U.K. will remain marginal for robot deployments. An opportunity is rising through labor constraints and concern over productivity stagnation, and given the likely challenges facing U.K. trade with the outside world in the wake of Brexit, an emphasis on import substitution and domestic consumption could lead to an uptick in manufacturing. Furthermore, Britain could begin to lead in the deployment of robots outside of manufacturing. Amazon is currently testing drone delivery in England, and there are ample opportunities to deploy robots in retail, with American vendors such as Brain Corp expanding to European markets.

Ready for improvement

With a thriving research environment, several business champions, impressive startups, and an expectation of greater internal development, it looks like the U.K. will improve its relative position in the robotics industry. But it is unlikely to achieve the success enjoyed by leaders such as Germany, Singapore, Korea, or Japan.

To accelerate the process of automation, companies should see leasing and robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) as essential to lower barriers to adoption, and make the technology more accessible to small-to-medium enterprises. Meanwhile, government and business need to frame any industrial strategy discretely and granularly, comparing U.K. technology adoption to equivalent European economies such as France, Italy, or Germany. The challenge to make Britain a Tier 1 nation in advancement once again is daunting, as the past decades have seen it fall behind key competitors in global manufacturing.

But with the country barreling towards an epochal election, parties and governments must acknowledge the centrality of robotics and automation in realizing a British economy that is definitively superior to where it stands now.

Rian Whitton, ABI ResearchAbout the Author

Rian Whitton is a research analyst for ABI Research, a market intelligence company focused on the most transformative technologies and their impact across industrial, commercial and consumer markets. As part of the Strategic Technologies research team, Rian provides an analysis for Robotics, Automation, Intelligent Systems, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. He has also written actively on the commercial application of unmanned aerial vehicles. He has been a speaker at the Robotics Summit & Expo, produced by The Robot Report, and regularly contributes to media outlets like Bloomberg, Thompson Reuters, ZDnet, Recode and the Financial Times.

Prior to ABI Research, Rian graduated in 2017 with a Master’s degree in Science & Security from King’s College London, researching the intersection of technology and defense. He has chaired panels on and spoken at academic events about the intersection of technological innovation and defense, particularly in relation to AI and Robotics.

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