One of Bristol’s beacons of innovation, the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL), welcomed cities’ minister Greg Clark to the purpose-built facility at the University of the West of England’s (UWE) Frenchay campus in Bristol last month (February 2012). A joint initiative that partners Bristol University and UWE, the Bristol Robotics Laboratory was founded in 2005, and is the largest robotics facility in the UK. A world-class research environment, it brings together expertise and resources from a range of disciplines, and a large number of projects involve national and global partnerships with both academia and industry.
What does BRL do?
The different project areas draw on sciences as diverse as microbiology, psychology, computer studies and various engineering interests. “The range of research is incredibly broad”, says Professor Alan Winfield, an engineer and expert in swarm robotics. Winfield explains that some projects focus on humanoid (human-like) robotics and human-robot relationships, whilst other groups within BRL are interested in robot systems that take inspiration from biology.
Bio-inspired bots and human-cyborg relations
The EcoBot project, a robotic system that creates energy from digestion, has attracted a large outside interest. EcoBot uses Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) technology, in which energy rich molecules such as sugars are broken down by microbes. This process liberates electrons, which can then be used to power the constituent circuits in these autonomous robots. In addition to this, a team lead by Dr Ioannis Ieropoulos has secured prestigious funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation for a project that uses MFCs to generate electricity from urine. This groundbreaking work could not only help developing countries to generate electricity from an abundant source, but the team hopes it can be used for wastewater treatment here in the UK.
Possibly the largest research area is humanoid robot forms. The ANDY project (Anthropomorphic Natural Dynamics) aims to make the physical behaviour of robotic bodies more natural, taking inspiration from the constraints and virtues of real human muscular and motor systems. Working with Elumotion, a small robotics company based in Bath, the BRL team have designed and produced more lifelike systems.
Chris Melhuish, Director of the BRL and a humanoid robotics expert hopes that projects like this will not only increase robotic flexibility and efficiency, but also improve their relationships with humans in everyday life.
“Robotics is a community that has enjoyed steady growth, and is fundamentally important for all sorts of applications”. The ability of robots to assist people in tasks is becoming increasingly important, for example in helping a growing older population, and in medical rehabilitation programmes for chronic diseases”. Bristol’s excellent hospital and medical research infrastructure allows other projects to look at robotics for related applications. A recent example is a collaborative effort between BRL, Bristol Royal Infirmary and imaging experts Simpleware, which investigates healing bone fractures using robotic systems as a less invasive strategy than traditional open surgery. Another area is so called ‘soft robotics’; which looks at creating robotic muscles and organs, along with active skins, as examples of bio-inspired artificial technologies.
Safety is another big aspect of what BRL do, and the Co-operative Human-Robot Interaction Systems (CHRIS) project is at the core of creating robots that work intelligently and intuitively to aid human activity, rather than put flesh and blood co-workers at risk.
Towards intelligence: Swarms and Autonomous Robots
The BRL mission is to create “autonomous devices capable of working independently, with each other, or with us in human society”. Professor Winfield’s own research is based around investigating systems of robots that work together in a decentralised manner; individual robots being able to work intelligently as part of a group. This ability of robots to be aware of each other in the group, called a swarm, can increase the energy efficiency of robots in a range of situations. Understanding how individual machines work as part of a system, and increasing that ability is key to improving the range of ‘real life’ applications available to robotics.
South West IT and engineering experts SciSys have also found the question of autonomy and intelligence key in their robotics work. Dr Mark Woods, a researcher involved in creating the Autonomous Robotic Scientist, explains: “As part of the European Space Agency (ESA) exploration programme on Mars, the ExoMars Rover needs to overcome huge challenges, such as severe energy and communications restrictions”. His team develops robots to overcome these problems, with the ability to modify their intitial instructions to take account of new information whilst on Mars; a kind of “real time contingency plan”. Woods adds that autonomous navigation is essential, and that the robots “have a basic knowledge of geology, so they can immediately respond to sites of interest and relay potential discoveries more efficiently”. The SciSys team, who have also worked with Elumotion, are interested in creating autonomous transport devices, and plan to test robots with an ability to travel kilometre distances unaided.
The Future for the South West
Worldwide, the future for the robotics industry is one of continuous innovation and growth, complementing international markets within electronics and information. The IFR World Robotics report (2011) shows that service robots, primarily for use in the public sector, will provide a massive boost to the industry.
“The Bristol area is a fantastic hub for this community” says Chris Lee of SciSys, who notes another local example of a thriving company in OC Robotics. OC Robotics’ snake-arm robot could prove to be of huge use to the defense and civil aviation industries, and has already carried out safety checks in radioactive areas of nuclear power plants. The arm, which is self-supporting, is controlled by steel wires that run through movable links, while various tools can be fitted to the end such as cameras, lights, cutting equipment or swabs.
Chris Melhuish uses the term community as well: “We are very much engaged in collaborating with industry and academic partners. Creating complex robots capable of reading text and interacting with real objects, for example, is no simple task, but the interest and investment would simply not exist without it being worthwhile”.
The original of this piece appears at: http://www.sciencecitybristol.com/pages/19-telling-the-story/items/312-robotics-in-the-south-west [Published March 2012]