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The State of Play
The United Kingdom has historically lagged in the field of robotics, especially in relation to competitor economies on the European continent, particularly Germany, but in comparison to North American and East Asian economies as well. Far from being an isolated phenomenon, the lack of robotics deployment in the United Kingdom coincides with decades of relative industrial stagnation.
When simply looking at shipment figures, the United Kingdom is largely a spectator in the robotics industry. This has been the result of many factors, including a decline in manufacturing relative to the rest of the world, a lack of solid investment growth, a failure to develop a coherent and long-term industrial policy, and a limited number of domestic companies championing robots.
This manifests itself in shipment statistics. According to ABI Research, while Europe was the destination for 16.2% of industrial robot shipments in 2019, the United Kingdom was home to just 0.9%. Installations for industrial robots went down by 3%, or 2,306, from 2018 to 2017. This occurred at the same time that growth in the European Union reached 12%. When it comes to robot density, the United Kingdom ranks twenty-second worldwide with a density of 85 units per 10,000 manufacturing workers, which is equivalent to the global average. China overtook the United Kingdom in 2017 and is currently ranked twenty-first, with 97 units.
A Surprisingly Impressive Company Ecosystem
Despite this modest record of established industry metrics, the United Kingdom does have some strong points when it comes to robotics. At the startup level, Britain’s robotics landscape is quite healthy. Based on ABI Research’s 2018 Robotics Investment Monitor (PT-2182), when accounting for Venture Capital (VC) funding in robotics, the United Kingdom is a hot destination, with US$125.8 million invested in British robot startups by private actors. Only the United States, China, and Singapore saw more VC funding for robotics companies. While not as comprehensive as the major robotics players’ ecosystems, there is enough life in the United Kingdom’s startup scene to suggest that the infrastructure necessary to build and nourish effective companies and advanced technologies already exists.
The relative healthiness of innovative British robotics startups is exemplified by the list of recipients of funding from venture capital firm Britbots, one of the most notable incubators for British-made robotics.
Most commentators have heard of Boston Dynamics and marveled at its mammal-like robots, and some enthusiasts have heard of ANYbotics, which is producing a similar set of robots in Switzerland. The United Kingdom, too, is home to a quadruped developer in the form of ZOA Robotics. While only at the prototyping stage, ZOA claims that its reduced price point and focus on mass deployment will set it apart from the aforementioned quadruped developers.
The ZOA Robot, named Zeta, is only at the alpha/beta stage of development but it can already perceive and climb stairs. As well as being highly flexible and adaptable to different environments, Its cost-effectiveness is a major advantage: while Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini costs close to US$100,000, and the ANYBOTICS platform costs up to US$250,000, a single ZOA Robot costs £29,000 (approximately US$36,000). This price will only go down with further iterations. ZOA uses custom electronics and drives for its hardware, but pays most of its attention to developing its proprietary software stack, which is built on C+ and Python). The navigation used by ZOA is Visual Simultaneous Location and Mapping (vSLAM), augmented by Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). It does not use exotic Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) sensors. Like many others in its position, ZOA is hoping to develop Robotics-as-a-Service (RaaS). It currently controls its robot by teleoperation, but this represents a stepping stone toward increased autonomy.
While ZOA is developing mobile quadrupeds, collaborative robot developer Automata, funded by industrial giant ABB, has developed an effective cobot, or collaborative robot, arm called Eva that is priced at £4,990 (US$6,500). The Eva cobot achieves this effective price decrease from the cobot average of US$25,000 because of an innovative proprietary drive that acts a cost-effective alternative to the industry-standard Harmonic Drive hardware. The company does a lot of machine-tending, exemplified by its deployment for Qualitetch, a U.K.-based manufacturer of specialized metal components for products ranging from satellites to hairdryers. Qualitetch’ s implementation of Eva uses a four-cup vacuum gripper to safely and accurately pick up metal sheets and place them on a conveyor belt.
Another example of mobile robotics being deployed for new use cases is Birmingham-based Hausbots, a similarly small startup developing robots for exterior building painting. Just coming out of the prototyping stage, they are developing a mobile platform that can dispense paint and coating onto buildings for a variety of purposes. They expect that demand will be driven by the large number of buildings with substandard damp-proofing or coating to prevent decay and damp. The standard way to address this is to hire a large number of contractors to manually apply coating. This can be very expensive, especially when extrapolated throughout a whole city, so any country that can automate the process is likely to reap benefits. Like ZOA, Hausbots relies heavily on Robot Operating System (ROS) as the middleware for its OS. Again, like ZOA, Hausbots hopes to run on a RaaS model.
British hardware innovation is not limited to the ground. Drone manufacturer H Robotics is a developer of ruggedized drone technology. While many of the drones being adopted for the commercial space are little different from consumer products, H Robotics has developed an advanced multirotor drone with a 45-minute flight time, a payload of 6 kg, and a top speed of 100 kmph. Their main customers are mining firms that use the drones for security, volumetric analysis of aggregates, and monitoring and surveying, particularly in Africa. In a bid to win new clients, the company is offering its data services for free for the first year.
While these companies are pushing innovative technologies, they remain small and need to be complemented by interested end users and larger technology-adopters. The most well-known and significant champion of robotics adoption in the United Kingdom has not been a manufacturer, as is often the case, but rather an e-commerce giant: online grocery provider Ocado, which has been automating its stores with a wide variety of robotic solutions. This U.K. supermarket is the only grocery retailer in Europe, besides Amazon, that develops its own robotics technology. The firm has become well recognized for its heavy investment in the Research and Development (R&D) of automation technologies, which has not only dramatically improved efficiency within four of its own Customer Fulfillment Centers (CFCs), but has also opened additional revenue streams. Ocado has licensed out its patent-protected technology to other supermarket firms, including Morrisons (United Kingdom), Groupe Casino (France), ICA (Sweden), and Sobeys (Canada). In 2018, Ocado announced an exclusive U.S. partnership with Kroger, to which it will supply robotic solutions in more than 20 automated warehouses across the country, with the first facility costing the U.S. retailer US$55 million. Ocado’s robotics offering consists of a 3D grid containing fresh and non-perishable products that are picked from above by a fleet of autonomous robots that communicate over a custom 4G network.
Ocado’s moves in robotics have gone beyond fixed automation. In 2017, it completed its trial for autonomous delivery vans, in consort with the robot developer Oxbotica. Spun out of Oxford University, Oxbotica is a British Autonomy Solution Provider (ASP) that deploys its Selenium software stack to help automate vehicles, much in line with the value proposition offered by the likes of Brain Corp, BlueBotics, and Stocked Robotics. A unique feature of Oxbotica is that it relies on LiDAR and Radar sensors for all its solutions, hence its strategic partnership with U.K.-radar sensor provider Navtech Radar.
The Beginning of a Strategy
The aforementioned examples show that the United Kingdom is a hotbed of early-stage research in robotics and has a strong ecosystem for early stage development. Through light-touch government direction, there are four established U.K. robotic hub organizations, led by various university collaborations to help developed advanced robotic solution in very challenging use cases:
The four Hubs were founded to speed U.K. research out of universities and into new commercial partnerships and were funded through U.K. Research and Innovation (UKRI) as part of its Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund’s (ISCF) Robotics for a Safer World challenge. This has channeled over £93 million (US$115 million) of government funds into developing robotic solutions for extreme environments. Funding for robotics in harsh environments plays to the United Kingdom’s strengths: very little commercialization, and very little need to scale, but lots of talent.
Outside of public and private research, the broader government push for the United Kingdom’s future economic outlook (of which robotics will play an increasingly important part), is distilled into the four challenges outlined in the latest U.K. Industrial Strategydocument:
While this prioritizes the United Kingdom’s legitimate challenges and strengths, it falls short on detail. The United Kingdom does not need to follow China’s industrial policy example of setting targets for the amount of servo motors produced domestically (or similar detailed goals), but should take into account its funding and adoption versus its European counterparts. New circumstances due to Brexit are likely to be disruptive to the manufacturing investment cycle in the short term, but could in the long run shift the economy to a phase of internal development due to the need to compete internationally on a bigger scale.
New suggestions about the setting up of a £100 billion (US$123 billion) national infrastructure fund would certainly help spur investment into capital equipment. Ultimately, however, it is likely that the United Kingdom will remain marginal for robot deployment. An oppurtunity is arising through labor constraints and advanced companies being able to fill the gaps, so while the United Kingdom may lag for industrial robots, it could be an early adopter for robots in nontraditional and service rolls.
In essence, a thriving research environment, a number of business champions and impressive startups, and an expectation of greater internal development all point to the United Kingdom improving its relative position in the robotics industry. Major industry players from Europe like ABB are already affecting change through funding startups like Automata and through distributors like Bots UK, while industrial robot providers like FANUC, Universal Robots, and MiR are noting sales growth.
To accelerate this process, companies should see leasing and RaaS as essential in lowering barriers to adoption and making the technology more accessible to small-to-medium enterprises. Meanwhile, government and business need to frame any industrial strategy discretely and granularly, comparing U.K. technology adoption to equivalent European economies like France, Italy, or Germany.