Robotics and Autonomous Systems will transform our lives. Oxford should be at the vanguard of this endeavour. There is no debate that the machines are coming, that RAS is a national strategic priority, or that Oxford is perfectly poised to secure a durable leadership position in the area.
We have now set out how Oxford can create, run and exploit a world-leading Institute for Robotics and Autonomous systems. We should call it the Oxford Robotics Institute – ORI.
We explain why this is important to the Nation and our University, how it can happen, what it will do, sets out its structure, and points out what opportunities and impact arise from it.
The truth is, we need to build better robots: we need them to be cheap, work synergistically with people in large, complex and time-changing environments, and do so for long periods of time. Moreover, it is essential that they are safe and trusted. We are compelled as researchers to produce the foundational technologies that will see robots work in economically and socially important domains.
This cannot be a purely technical endeavour. The Oxford Robotics Institute will address fundamental technical, ethical, social, and economic issues, which impede large scale commercial and societal adoption of mobile robotics. The profound interdisciplinary of RAS especially when considered in the context of users, bystanders, and doubters makes for a rare opportunity to leverage and fuse global expertise from across Oxford’s Academic Divisions.
The Oxford Mobile Robotics Group has a world leading reputation in land based Mobile Autonomy. In a decade it has grown from a typical small academic group into something large and influential. MRG has played a pivotal role in the evolution of the UK’s strategy in Driverless car technology – indeed it produced the UK’s first self driving car. However if we want it to continue to thrive and grow we must avoid it getting pot-bound.
Having a robotics institute will allow not only allow growth and diversification of its research activity, but also provide a scalable framework and home for unusual collaborations. Its activity will be driven by the insatiable desire for increased efficiency, productivity and safety in our workplaces (and indeed their number), the immutable requirement for safety, and ethical considerations in responsible innovation.
The Oxford Robotics Institute will be a clear statement to thinkers, funders, investors and policy makers that Oxford’s ambition and thinking goes far beyond its current situation. It will make high level engagement in an evolving and national strategy a natural thing.
Vitally, in terms of imports, it will attract and provide fertile ground for the next generation of academics. Equally important, on the export side, it will allow us to train experts at all levels from undergraduate, through to senior postdocs, from pure algorithmic thinker, to applied systems and software engineering.
The Global Picture is best captured by the UK’s RAS Strategy :
Beyond automation and control, Robotic and Autonomous Systems (RAS) are interconnected, interactive, cognitive and physical tools, able to variously perceive their environments, reason about events, make or revise plans and control their actions. They perform useful tasks for us in the real world, extending our capabilities, increasing our productivity and reducing our risks.
In the future, we will increasingly use RAS to enhance almost every aspect of our lives. They will be part of our response to national challenges: an ageing population, safer transport, efficient healthcare, productive manufacturing, and secure energy. RAS technologies will be truly transformational for the whole of society, part of the ‘Embodied Internet’ that will be at the heart of our future smart cities, smart homes and smart industries.
Acting as the arms and legs of ‘Big Data’, connected in ‘The Internet of Things’, RAS is a ubiquitous and underpinning technology that can fuel the UK’s Industrial Strategy. There are clearly identifiable hot spots where RAS capability can impact on vertical sectors including aerospace, agriculture, automotive, energy, health, manufacturing, marine, nuclear and transport. These can be used to inform public and private investment decisions.
We live in an era of unprecedented change: to our businesses, our economies and our societies. Technological advancement has become a key driver of this change. Nations and industries that participate and lead will shape the next wave and enjoy improved international competitiveness, productivity and economic growth. A recent report by McKinsey estimated that the application of advanced robotics could generate a potential economic impact of $1.9 trillion to $6.4 trillion per year by 2025. This impact would result from improved health, new products and transforming the way in which products are built and services are delivered.
Responding to this internationally recognised opportunity, Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) was identified by the UK Government in 2012 as one of the Eight Great Technologies that support the UK Industrial Strategy driving efforts to rebalance the UK economy and creating jobs and growth.
The UK has a significant store of RAS talent in its research community, small businesses, and large corporations. When combined with the right investment, this ecosystem can build and feed an innovation pipeline that will realise new RAS products, services and businesses.
The ORI will have a strong systems focus – carrying forward and building upon the prestige, reputation and tradition of the Mobile Robotics Group. This will be woven into the very fabric of the institute. It will run, with support from its technical staff, a series of “flagships”. A Flagship is a thread of work tied to both a physical robot (a self-driving car for example), a demonstration programme, and a domain.
Flagships force integration and innovation which is essential to robotics research, making them an embodiment of our work.
Flagships attract industrial sponsorship because they demonstrate how technology can be transitioned out of the lab.
Flagships make it possible to answer broader social science and ethical questions because they allow the technology to be tested in-situ, with real users.
Flagships make for landmark achievements like self driving cars and PODS in cities. They keep it real.
From Oxford’s Perspective having a Robotics Institute, properly and sustainably staffed, will afford us great opportunities. These come in many guises but all in some way underpin, support, drive, and exploit the core academic missions of a modern university and engineering department.
We can Capitalise, leverage and build on recent investment in equipment, people, premises (over £15M), and in land based mobile autonomy from a mixture of industrial and RCUK sources.
We can Diversify our robotics research portfolio into new areas such as airborne robotics and manipulation. Oxfords brand name is stamped clearly all over land based mobile autonomy but we should strive for more, attracting new academics in new areas which are complementary and can build off our success.
Strategy is important in achieving both sustainability and impact. Having an institute as an umbrella will facilitate strategic and directed growth – something that is easily missed from organic growth. We should be purposeful in our strategy to build a persistent and coherent academic presence in robotics. What we have at the moment is a strained expansion and extension of an economic and structural model designed for small research groups which is very vulnerable to key personnel leaving.
We can build explicit linkage across disciplines, and in doing so bring more funding sources and more research questions into reach and scope. Extraordinary things will happen when we connect people from Engineering Science, Computer Science, the Said Business School, the Transport Studies Unit, the Blavatnik School of Government, the Oxford Internet Institute, the Oxford Cybersecurity Center and the Law Faculty.
We can generate service income by running a Small Research Facility around its professional and specialist design, fabrication, software and platforms engineers. We have a phenomenally well equipped robotics hardware and design facility, staffed with world class engineers. Our EPSRC equipment grant proposal made explicit our intention (and induced an expectation) that this would facilitate an national robotics service with spare capacity.
We can actively engage and enthuse the undergraduate population, linking research to teaching. Robotics is exquisitely positioned, given its nature, to be relevant to a vast spectrum of our undergraduates, because it covers at a minimum computer science, electronics, design, mechanical engineering, ethics, control, fabrication and systems.
We can amplify the relevance of our Postgraduate training and ensure the renewal for the AIMS (Autonomous and Intelligent Machines and Systems) Doctoral Training Centre. We must for example, provide parity, with the investment and energy in this area being made by Edinburgh.
We can play our part in the Regional Development Plans at the city and county level. Not just in terms of jobs creation, but also in terms of catalysing and contributing to the technology landscape in Oxfordshire, when seen through a macro lens. For example: it would operate at the field center in Culham City, deploying and learning from a fleet of autonomous shuttles working there.
We can Fuel Entrepreneurialism: a natural partner to a disruptive technology sector which, by McKinsey’s reckoning will be worth at least $2T by 2025. The ORI would work with Oxford Innovation to encourage its students, staff and fellows to start companies and generate wealth for the UK.