£84m boost announced for projects in extreme environments


More than £68m of investment from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund for robotics and artificial intelligence projects in extreme environments has been announced by the Government

This investment will develop robots and artificial intelligence able to take on jobs in the freezing depths of the North Sea, dealing with extreme environments in the process of nuclear energy production, the hostile vacuum of space, and heat of deep mining.

In her keynote speech to the Innovate UK Conference in Birmingham today (8 November), Climate Change and Industry Minister Claire Perry set out how British experts and innovators are leading the world in this new sector, receiving support from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

The government is working with business and academia to encourage investment in robotics and artificial intelligence – a priority area of the Industrial Strategy.

Almost £45m will be used to set up four new research hubs based at the University of Manchester, University of Birmingham, University of Surrey and Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

The centres of excellence, managed by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), will be responsible for developing robotic technology to enable safer working environments in space and deep mining and the hazardous and harsh environments of nuclear energy and off-shore wind.

As well as receiving government investment, the four hubs will be supported by £52m of industry support from commercial and international partners.

Minister for Climate Change and Industry Claire Perry said:

“Britain leads the world in innovation and technology and through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, we are making £68 million available to projects in robotics and artificial intelligence with applications in clean renewable energy generation to ensure the UK is the place new technology is nurtured.

“Next week, I will be at the COP23 conference in Germany, and it will be abundantly clear there that, if we want to truly make a difference to our climate as well as take advantage of the economic opportunities of our transition to a low carbon economy, it will come down to continued innovation.”

The investment announced by the Climate Change and Industry Minister today also includes:

  • £4.3m for the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to fund five research projects at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), and the Universities of Exeter and Southampton, to develop sensors capable of working in the ocean’s extreme conditions;
  • £16.5m for a collaborative research and development competition, run by Innovate UK, with winners set to include more than 70 businesses, 13 universities and ten research organisations;
  • Funding of £3m for 17 studies which focus on demonstrating how artificial intelligence can operate in extreme environments, following a separate competition run by Innovate UK.

Professor Philip Nelson, Chief Executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, said:

“These new Robotics Hubs will draw on the country’s research talent to nurture new developments in the field of robotics and provide the foundations on which innovative technologies can be built.

“The resulting outcomes from this research will allow us to explore environments that are too dangerous for humans to enter without risking injury or ill-health. The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is helping us achieve a joined-up approach to research, discovery and innovation.”

Ruth McKernan, Chief Executive of Innovate UK, said:

“These pioneering projects driven by the very best minds in UK research and industry exemplify the huge potential of what can be achieved through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and the long-term benefits for the UK economy.

“These are just the first competitions in robotics and AI, there will be further opportunities for businesses in the coming months.”

Professor Duncan Wingham, Chief Executive of the NERC, said:

“These sensors will help us to better understand our oceans, helping us to manage them sustainably for the future. The projects will develop ambitious new technologies that work in hazardous and extreme environments, maintaining the UK’s world-class status in marine robotics.

“Other industries, such as the water, aquaculture and industrial waste, are also likely to benefit from these technologies.”

Today’s announcements follow the publication of the industry-led Made Smarter review, which predicted Britain’s manufacturing sector could unlock more than £450bn over the next decade and create thousands of jobs if it successfully embraced digitisation, robotics and artificial intelligence.

Alongside the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, BEIS has also been working with Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Dr Jerome Pesenti to establish how the UK can grow and support its expanding artificial intelligence sector.


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