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UK advances research of autonomous robots in lab environments

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory has been awarded new funding to develop the equipment alongside industry and academia

The UK government is making inroads into the use of autonomous mobile robotics in scientific research laboratory environments, with new funding awarded to develop the technology.

Led by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), the project sees industrial and academic partners working with the government to develop robotic chemist technology, which aims to create analytical capability for chemical, biological and explosives analysis.

Funding of £1.02m has been awarded by the Defence Innovation Unit at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for the two-year project, with support from Defence Equipment and Support, and the Department for Transport.

The University of Liverpool will be working on the project through its startup company Gearu Robotic Research, chosen via a competitive tendering process. The goal will be to identify a robotic solution to conduct two chemical processes relating to the analysis of environmental samples and explosives. After this initial phase, a follow-on contract will be defined to complete the project.

The project forms part of Dstl’s initiatives around the development and application of mobile, autonomous systems within its highly regulated high-hazard laboratory environments. According to the MoD lab, the technology “could perform routine and repetitive tasks, increasing the value of its human counterparts who would be able to focus on more complex analytical activities”.

In addition, Dstl noted the use of robots to collect data would “have positive implications on reproducibility and repeatability for some tasks and would increase capacity during periods of high demand”.

The developments at Dstl and the funding for robotic chemist technology follow the MoD’s plans to invest an additional £1.6bn in digital and innovation over the next 10 years, announced in June 2021.

The MoD strategy includes plans to establish a “digital foundry”, a federated ecosystem of digital innovators and developers, and includes a defence-specific artificial intelligence (AI) centre.

The MoD’s approach to innovation, announced in 2019, includes the Defence Technology Framework, which lays out seven technology “families” that are applicable to this vision. These range from AI and advanced materials to energy storage and cutting-edge sensors.

Possible applications of these clusters, according to the framework, include deployed 3D printing, space tracking and communications, enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as cyber defence, and automated logistics.

Also in 2019, the government announced £34m in funding for research around autonomous systems. The programme aims to provide developers, policy makers and regulators with access to experts, as well as the latest information and guidelines around the technology. Areas covered by the research will include the design of the systems to improve resilience against cyber attacks.

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