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Robots in extreme environments, going where no human can, or wants to go



Robots are on the rise, they’re getting more capable of handling more situations, and this presents businesses around the world, and especially in the UK, with new opportunities.


Robots are set to play an increasing role in our future, and today there are many environments that could benefit from the introduction of robotics. No where is this more prevalent than in what many people refer to as “extreme” environments, which can include everything from open cast mining operations all the way through to the clean up of nuclear waste and contamination, such as at Fukishima in Japan, which suffered a catastrophic failure a few years ago now.


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Over the past couple of weeks Innovate UK, part of  the UK Government’s Research and Innovation division, have released a podcast that delves into these topics and more with episode one focusing on, yep, you’ve guessed it, robotics, and their aim is to get more businesses involved in the sector.

During their podcast they address a whole host of questions, many of which are on people’s minds today more than ever such as what does the future hold for our robot friends, will they take our jobs, and more esoteric questions such as why do we need them anyway?

Addressing the latter point it’s increasingly looking like robots have many roles to play in today’s society, if for no other reason that safety reasons with nuclear decommissioning being one. Evidently, entering radioactive environments is extremely dangerous, or near impossible, for humans, so robots, whether they be the more common a garden hard robots we all know and love-hate, or the less commonly known soft robots, that can squeeze into all sorts of random nooks and crannies, are ideal.


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Meanwhile other environments include the cold harsh deep seas where we’re seeing a dramatic uptick in the number of Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV’s) that are being used to survey everything from the legs of oil rigs and oil pipelines, as well as carrying heavy equipment and performing a variety of tasks with increasing dexterity. And in fact it looks like the deep sea, while it might not sound as extreme as entering radioactive environments, could soon become a robot stronghold, after all, there are enormous risks to human life when diving to extreme depths. Just ask any NOX diver. In addition to that divers are also faced with adverse health effects in the long-term, everything from the onset of Osteoporosis through to neurodegenerative damage which can be more severe than what we see in space travelling astronauts.

That said though deep sea diving benefits many industries, such as offshore wind. But it doesn’t stop there, unexploded ammunition dumped on the sea floor needs to be identified and cleared. Also, many important cables, for example the internet cables that help keep our world connected.


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So all this then begs the question why aren’t robots more commonplace?

Well, the answer is that there are a number of challenges that the robotics industry must face before the technology can be put to use that range from the cost and complexity of their operation, all the way through to availability and reliability. For example, in radioactive environments even today’s best robots fail before they complete their job, and then in deep sea environments budgets can be a problem, divers are still cheap when compared to most ROV’s, and ROV’s are still relatively dumb, needing to be operated by intelligent pilots. As well as this, their endurance and battery power are still relatively low, although the latter is an issue that MIT, for one, are trying to resolve with the creation of a new sea water drinking battery system…

On the one hand it’s clear that there is the potential for alot of innovation and top line growth for companies who are either already operating in the space, or thinking about it, including SME’s, which is why now several accelerator communities and think tanks are wrapping their arms around the sector in the UK in order to try to promote innovation and investment. After all, any systems that are designed and built in the UK could be then deployed worldwide.


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As a result the general advice from the private sector, as well as government, is that this is an area of opportunity with plenty of shortcoming that the UK tech sector could not just help resolve, but lead in, and as for the question of will robots take our jobs?

Well, the answer is yes and no. While over the long term machines will be used in place of people in certain situations it’s likely they’ll first be deployed to address safety and efficiency concerns, rather than undertake mundane jobs so it’ll be a gradual move into the workforce not a sudden paradigm shift. Despite this though human intervention and ingenuity will still be needed to create and develop these robots, and overall our workplaces and skillsets will evolve, rather than be replaced.

Interested in the future of tech and innovation? Whether you’re a business looking to grow, or you’re simply keen to stay up to date with the latest developments in technology and science, Innovate UK have a podcast for you.

Listen and download the full episode here.

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