UK start-ups on special Robotics Mission to California

The Technology Strategy Board has sent some innovative UK start-ups and SMEs that specialise in Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) on a week-long programme and tour in the US to meet potential investors, customer and supply chain partners, along with networking opportunities to generate contacts, ideas and potential funding for their company.

Phil Williams, programme manager for the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Special Interest Group, Technology Strategy Board

Phil Williams, the programme manager of the UK Robotics & Autonomous Systems SIG shares his experiences on the first day of the mission. 

The first stop on the Technology Strategy Board’s Robotics Mission to California was San Diego, the eighth largest city in the US with the seventeenth largest economy, largely driven by the tourism, innovation and the defence sectors.

Robotic research labs of UCSD

Our first day on the Mission always promised to be an interesting day with visits to the robotic research labs of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and the local chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).

AUVSI has grown to become the world’s largest non-profit organisation devoted exclusively to advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community and will often represent their industries views to Congress.

When the US Government mandated the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to open the US skies to unmanned aircraft by 2015, AUVSI released a study that found 100,000 jobs would be created and that the associated economic impact of $82 billion would be realised within 10 years as a result.

So for three of our Mission companies, the opportunity to meet up with some of the world’s leading Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) developers at the centre of one of the world’s largest and most progressive markets for UAS is quite a ‘big deal’. Each have developed new technologies that could unlock the widespread adoption of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) for civil applications by increasing flight times, reducing weight and size and designing in safety.

Remote Operate Aerial Endurance Vehicles

Multi-rotor copters are becoming the UAS of choice, mainly because of their availability and price. Around $500 will get you a top of the range fully loaded quadcopter with GPS, auto-pilot and controller. However, flight times are fairly limited, around 15-20 minutes at best. AuraTech has developed Remote Operate Aerial Endurance Vehicle (ROAEV) which boasts flight times in excess of 12 hours. These devices will not only make remote inspection and the process of surveying more efficient, but they can now be thought of as platforms for service delivery.

Maplebird is in the process of developing the smallest UAS in the world and they are doing this by turning to nature. Their device is smaller and lighter than an average smart phone and achieves flight through flapping insect-like wings at incredible frequencies. By drawing inspiration from the humble honey bee, not only is flight incredibly power efficient, but it is also highly controllable, making its ability to cope with windy conditions second to none. Such a small UAS inevitably means that the power available to the onboard sensors is limited.

The solution has once again been found by nature which has enabled Maplebird to develop energy efficient navigation and collision avoidance systems. This tiny bio-inspired device is not only well suited for industrial plant inspection or the emergency services, but also, rather fittingly, could be used to help with agricultural pollination.

Hiding the complexity of Formal Methods

D-RisQ is in the business of proving that software systems work. This is considerably more difficult to do than it sounds, especially when the software systems learn. However, the software design tools that D-RisQ have developed hide the complexity of Formal Methods from the software developers and allow them to focus on capturing system requirements. Their suite of tools is then able to test the software for failure modes and can verify and qualify that all the requirements have been met. The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) are particularly interested in D-RisQ’s technology.

If the CAA’s set of regulations for civil airspace can drive the requirements for UAS onboard software then it is finally possible to rapidly certify UAS as safe to fly.

Not only that, it will also be possible to certify that fully autonomous UAS operating beyond the visual line of sight (BVLoS) of the operator are also safe to fly. This is a game changer, not only for the UAS industry, but also for every other sector that is looking to certify autonomous robots, whether in agriculture, assisted living, blue light services, healthcare, manufacturing, transport or space.

The first day of the Mission proved to be a very interesting day indeed.

Phil Williams is the programme manager for the Robotics & Autonomous Systems Special Interest Group. He works alongside the Technology Strategy Board, Industry and Academia to deliver the SIGs key work programmes of “Building Knowledge”, “Building Community” and “Building Capability”.

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