Establishing the UK as a leader in AI and robotics research

With concern for the potential impact of Brexit looming over the UK space sector, an expert in space-focused artificial intelligence and robotics has set out a vision for how the UK can lead the way in space AI and robotics technology.

Professor Yang Gao, director of the Future AI and Robotics for Space (FAIR-SPACE) Hub led by the University of Surrey, says the UK has the research expertise and know-how to help lead the development of future space AI robotics that could be used to build giant space telescopes, autonomous vehicles that could explore on the rough terrain of Mars and other planets, and machines that could be used to mine minerals on asteroids.

Professor Gao comments: ‘Artificial intelligence and autonomous machines in space were imaginatively featured 50 years ago in science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which has been inspirational to human society since then. Today AI robotics are real-world technologies and can be used to unlock the potential of human space exploration and the advancement of our interests beyond our home planet.’

‘We cannot ignore pressures such as Brexit, but since the creation of the FAIR-SPACE Hub and looking around at the space sector in the United Kingdom, I am convinced that we have the knowledge to lead the development of these cutting-edge technologies and move closer to the goal of space exploration.’

The FAIR-SPACE Hub was created in November 2017, funded through a £6.9m research grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the UK Space Agency (UKSA), boosted by a further £7.5m match funding from the industrial sector and a £15m business development fund.

Professor Gao said of her Centre: ‘The long-term vision of FAIR-SPACE builds on three pillars - research excellence, end-user engagement, and capability/community building. The Hub’s core programme is currently addressing user-inspired research challenges in robotic sensing, perception, mobility and autonomy for extreme space environments. It is also helping accelerate the technology readiness levels of prototypes based on scientific research and innovation.’

During the upcoming UK Robotics Week 2018, Professor Gao will be speaking at the International Robotics Showcase on Thursday 21 June at the Exhibition Centre Liverpool. The FAIR-SPACE Hub will also be launching a whitepaper on space AI robotics, sponsoring a school space robot challenge, as well as giving an exhibition on next-generation space robots at the Showcase. 

Professor Philip Nelson, executive chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), said: ‘The UK is a global leader in robotics and AI research, with our researchers at the forefront in areas ranging from the optimisation of medical diagnoses and treatment to the development of robots to operate in extreme and challenging environments, such as at the FAIR-SPACE Hub.’

‘Robotics and AI have the potential to deliver enormous benefits for the UK and the world, and as part of UK Research and Innovation EPSRC is contributing to the government’s drive to capitalise on this opportunity through its Industrial Strategy.’


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