EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Robotics and Autonomous Systems (CDT-RAS)

Lead Research Organisation: Heriot-Watt University
Department Name: S of Mathematical and Computer Sciences

Abstract

Robots and autonomous systems (RAS) will revolutionise the world's economy and society for the foreseeable future, working for us, beside us and interacting with us. The UK urgently needs graduates with the technical skills and industry awareness to create an innovation pipeline from academic research to global markets. Key application areas include manufacturing, construction, transport, offshore energy, defence, and health and well-being. The recent Industrial Strategy Review set out four Grand Challenges that address the potential impact of RAS on the economy and society at large. Meeting these challenges requires the next generation of graduates to be trained in key enabling techniques and underpinning theories in RAS and AI and be able to work effectively in cross-disciplinary projects.

The proposed overarching theme of the CDT-RAS can be characterised as 'safe interactions'. Firstly, robots must safely interact physically with environments, requiring compliant manipulation, active sensing, world modelling and planning. Secondly, robots must interact safely with people either in face-to-face natural dialogue or through advanced, multimodal interfaces. Thirdly, key to safe interactions is the ability for introspective condition monitoring, prognostics and health management. Finally, success in all these interactions depends on foundational interaction enablers such as techniques for vision and machine learning.

The Edinburgh Centre for Robotics (ECR) combines Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh and has shown to be an effective venue for a CDT. ECR combines internationally leading science with an outstanding track record of exploitation, and world class infrastructure with approximately £100M in investment from government and industry including the National ROBOTARIUM. A critical mass of over 50 experienced supervisors cover the underpinning disciplines crucial to RAS safe interaction. With regards facilities, ECR is transformational in therange of robots and spaces that can be experimentally configured to study both the physical interaction through robot embodiment, as well as, in-field remote operations and human-robot teaming. This, combined with supportive staff and access to Project Partners, provides an integrated capability unique in the world for exploring collaborative interaction between humans, robots and their environments. The reputation of ECR is evidenced by the additional support garnered from 31 industry Project Partners, providing an additional 23 studentships and overall additional support of approximately £11M.

The CDT-RAS training programme will align with and further develop the highly successful, well-established CDT-RAS four-year PhD programme, with taught courses on the underpinning theory and state of the art and research training, closely linked to career relevant skills in creativity, RI and innovation. The CDT-RAS will provide cohort-based training with three graduate hallmarks: i) advanced technical training with ii) a foundation international experience, and iii) innovation training. Students will develop an assessed learning portfolio, tailored to individual interests and needs, with access to industry and end-users as required. Recruitment efforts will focus on attracting cohorts of diverse, high calibre students, who have the hunger to learn.

The single-city location of Edinburgh enables stimulating, cohort-wide activities that build commercial awareness, cross-disciplinary teamwork, public outreach, and ethical understanding, so that Centre graduates will be equipped to guide and benefit from the disruptions in technology and commerce. Our vision for the CDT-RAS is to build on the current success and ensure the CDT-RAS continues to be a major international force that can make a generational leap in the training of innovation-ready postgraduates, who will lead in the safe deployment of robotic and autonomous systems in the real world.

Planned Impact

The Centre will have immediate short-term impacts on people skills and innovation pipeline, alongside key advances in scientific knowledge and techniques in Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS). With the strength of the programme's training emphasis on safety and responsible research and innovation (RI), we also target longer term economic and societal benefits.

Economy: It is estimated that the application of advanced robotics could generate a potential worldwide economic impact of $1.7-4.5 trillion by 2025 per year by 2025 (McKinsey). Over the last 5 years, the UK has witnessed significant new investments in robotics from both Government with the £4.7B Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF), spawning parallel investments from industry. An example is the EPSRC £18M investment in the EPSRC ORCA Hub in RAS, led by Heriot-Watt, leveraging a further £18.5M industry investment. The potential economic impact of RAS, however, is hampered by a massive skills shortage, which the proposed CDT-RAS would address. The new jobs created by these investments will require highly specialised, yet interdisciplinary and industrially relevant skill-sets. The CDT-RAS is well positioned to supply the UK workforce in this growing area, through strong links with industry through its extensive CDT-RAS Project Partners network and through a training emphasis on 'innovation-ready' graduates. For example, our CDT-RAS students will have the opportunity to grow into industrial leaders of tomorrow through direct experience and company placements, as well as, through the CDT's extensive support for commercialisation and start-ups.

Society: Robotic and autonomous systems have already been identified by the UK government as a key component to enable safer working conditions for 'dull, dirty and dangerous' tasks in extreme and challenging environments such as offshore, nuclear, mining, and space. Moreover, there are disruptive opportunities for RAS to contribute to cost-effective and safeonstruction, transport, and manufacturing and improved quality-of-life through healthcare and assisted living. CDT-RAS training focuses on interdisciplinary, cross-cutting, yet responsible research and innovation to allow our future leaders to develop techniques and technologies that will have impacts in new areas, beneficially improving society beyond what we can already imagine. We will develop autonomous systems and AI enablers that are transparent to developers and end-users alike. This will allow robots and machines to work seamlessly in society both individually and in teams and comply with regulations, such as the EU General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) and emerging IEEE standards, such as P7001 for Transparency for Autonomous Systems (for which Centre academics are members of the working group).

Science: CDT-RAS students will benefit from i) a critical mass of over 50 experienced supervisors, ii) the brand new facilities of the £27.5M National ROBOTARIUM and earlier £8M EPSRC equipment investments, as well as, iii) opportunities for international scientific and industrial lab placements. The Centre will realise scientific advancement and impact, crucial to enabling safe interaction between RAS, humans and the environment, including soft robotics, bio-inspired systems, human-robot interaction, swarms and collaborative robotics including human-robot teaming, sensing, embedded control, multi-agent decision making and maritime field robotics. The impact of the resultant research will be strengthened through top-venue publications and conference presentations, utilising student presentation/writing skills honed during the CDT-RAS training. Impact will also come through outreach such as international student robot competitions, public engagement activities such as science festivals and CDT-RAS hosted international researcher visitors and workshops.

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