13 cool robots being developed in the South West

Meet the South West companies at the forefront of the national robotics surge - and find out how to get involved yourself
20th September 2017

Robots are becoming more involved in our lives every day, in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways. And the South West, with robotics incubators like Bristol Robotics Lab and Future Space, finds itself at the heart of the UK’s robotic development as it continues to push the boundaries of tech as we know it today.

Don’t believe us? Here’s a collection of Bristol and Bath robotic projects that do everything from educating children and letting you battle against other gaming robots to providing cheap 3D-printed robotic prosthetic hands or cleaning up the environment:

Agilic

A startup based at the Bristol Robotics Lab (BRL) incubator has been developing a range of education robots that inspire learning and play for children.

The company is, “dedicated to the agile development of innovative products and services” as demonstrated in their PiBot – a ‘build your own’ robot kit based on the Raspberry Pi mini-computer. The product is a learning resource with a bit of fun and the open source code makes the PiBot easily adaptable and perfect for educational purposes.

The team has also just released a new product, TiddlyBot, on Kickstarter. Agilic explains, “the TiddlyBot Kit adds robot powers such as movement, multicoloured lighting, line-drawing and following. This can be used to help learn and teach programming as well as for playing games.”

Agilic is keen to introduce the future to the vital skills they will need to take the next steps in robotic history.

GWS Robotics

There are two kinds of robots in our world – functional ones and social ones. GWS Robotics, a robotic application development agency, has built the cutest social robot of all, Pepper.

Pepper loves to interact with people, whether that be making us laugh, learning from us or even dancing with us. Social robots are integrating their way into a multitude of businesses, banks, hotels and other hospitality functions to foster a unique customer experience.

Pepper, the humanoid robot, even embarked on a tour around a Bristol primary school to inspire the next generation of robot engineers.

Playing with Pepper: School children engage with the dancing humanoid

GWS Robotics comments, “social robots can be used in your business frontline. They will help your business grow by building real relationships between your brand and your customers.

“Social robots can attract people and connect them with your business. They’re not just a gimmick or a fad – they are a real asset to your brand customer experience.”

MapleBird

Meet the smallest Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in the world – MapleBird. The engine, designed by Bath-based geniuses, works on an insect scale to power its flight through a flapping wing mechanism.

Due to their size, the tech is opened up to a number of opportunities from sophisticated reconnaissance UAVs for police operations, fire fighting and industrial plant inspection to personally owned drones controlled through your smartphone.

The team are currently exploring cutting-edge technology in their quest to shape the future of unmanned air power and they’re well on their way with this.

Reach Robotics

Reach Robotics’ latest project is the mighty Mekamon. This gaming battlebot exists in both physical and augmented reality, having the perfect balance of being, “easy to play but hard to master”.

What makes Mekamon so special is that you can delve into the depths of virtual reality whilst engaging in real life robot combat. Customise your bot on your smartphone and allow Mekamon’s clever tracking technology to take you on a premium fighting journey.

And, the team has just secured $7.5 million in foreign investment to take their innovative projects to incredible heights!

Mekamon: Battle alone in augmented reality or
against your friends in the physical world 

 

Fans are calling this a new branch of gaming – and it’s starting right here in the South West! The new, even more immersive concept has truly hit off; you can order your Mekamon here today to be a part of this epic robotic adventure.

OC Robotics

Based in Bristol since 1997, OC Robotics is one of the original kids on the block. It prides itself on being world leading when it comes to the use of robotics in confined and hazardous environments.

OC Robotics’ famous snake arm, stretching up to 3 metres with a cumulative bend of 180 degrees, gave the company the credibility it deserves. Since then, OC Robotics has been teaming up with various other South West robotics firms, including the equally established Shadow Robot.

A recent Innovate UK initiative brought together the two ambitious companies and the results are set to revolutionise remote control robotics. The plan is to create part of a semi-autonomous teleoperation system (SAT) in order to enable people to work at a more advanced level than what teleoperation currently presents. The robots utilised will now be told what to do rather than how to do it.

Open Bionics

Joel Gibbard, c0-founder of Bristol-based Open Bionics, made history in 2014 by using 3D printing and scanning to produce a fully functional custom socket and bionic hand.

Ever since, the company has excelled in its area of expertise, helping 1000s of amputees along the way. Their robotic hands are cheaper than the NHS non-robotic prosthetics, meaning this development is having a huge positive impact on many lives.

The team were selected for a Disney Accelerator program that oversaw the creation of the Iron Man hand, the Star Wars lightsaber hand and inspired by Queen Elsa from Disney’s Frozen, the Snowflake hand. Thanks to Open Bionics, kids can now wear their robotic hands with nothing but pride.

The Right Trousers

A collaborative project between several universities, including UWE, brings you The Right Trousers.

The aim is to build wearables for people that suffer from mobility issues. This could mean huge things for the future of health tech and whilst UWE is busy researching what people want and really don’t want from the finished project, the neighbouring BRL is experimenting with soft robotics.

It’s crucial that the trousers are comfortable as well as adaptable, so a lot of work is going into finding just the right materials to use. If the wearables aren’t easy to use, then they simply won’t work, so designing potentially ground-breaking assistive trousers is no walk in the park.

The downfall in exoskeletons is that they are uncomfortable to use, but soft robotics uses highly compliant materials and is thus a technology that lends itself well to robotic mobility devices that are light and comfortable.

And this project is also a world first – soft robotics has never before been used to address health care needs in one single type of wearable device.

Rovco

The underwater tech experts, Rovco, is doing pioneering things with its 3D technology paired with upcoming artificial intelligence (AI) to change the way we survey the subsea forever.

Rovco’s tech can be, “deployed quickly from smaller ROV platforms and therefore smaller vessels” thus reducing the risk for subsea asset owners. Energy suppliers could now use Rovco to monitor rust patches, limpets and barnacles in an oilfield rather than paying out to send teams of 20+ divers.

 

Rovco’s 3D visualisation technology: Check out the impressive results

 

Brian Allen, CEO and Founder, tells TechSPARK, “We’re really excited about using 3D-mapping technology from the drone industry to map and survey underwater structures. Once we have a fully working product and service we can give the renewables, oil and gas companies multi-million-pound annual savings in their subsea survey costs.

“This truly is the bleeding edge in subsea surveying, and we love innovating with a technology that will be so useful, and give so much benefit.”

Row-Bot

This revolutionary ‘Row-Bot’ has the capabilities to run self-sufficiently by eating, digesting and turning its food into energy just like we do.

Developed as a collaborative effort between BRL, the University of Bristol and UWE, Row-Bot uses Micro Fuel Cell (MFC) technology to power itself. Ioannis Ieropoulos, the lead professor on the project tells us, “Bacteria in MFCs breakdown organic matter and generate electricity directly. The electricity is used to power a range of devices, including robotic actuators, as in the case of Row-Bot.”

Dirty water is currently the main energy source, meaning Row-Bot could be sent out to oil spills in the ocean to rectify some of the damage. Another huge benefit to this tech is that people don’t have to be around, therefore, we can send Row-Bots to areas of high risk such as water environments that are contaminated with radiation.

And a new design means they’re even biodegradable, so there’s not a trace of waste left behind.

Rusty Squid

Rusty Squid has just been working on a project on the streets of Bristol called Heart in Your Hand. Passing Bristolians got the opportunity to hold a soft robotic heart that detects your heart beat and pumps in time, allowing you to feel how hard that muscle of yours works.

The ultimate goal is to elicit empathy towards our organs that keep us alive, but it’s also a charming example of what science and art can create in collaboration.

David McGoran, the creative director artist behind Rusty Squid, says, “We’ve just come back from the Royal Society Summer Fair where we got some amazing primal reactions from the public. We had people in tears, laughing uncontrollably, old couples kissing as they held each other’s heart and a whole range of strong social and emotional responses.”

Getting to the heart of the matter: Rusty Squid at the Summer Science Exhibition
 

In addition, the team are using MFCs combined with the gas pressure created by live yeast to create an electric current whilst digesting organic waste.

This artificial heart could circulate fluids in energy-autonomous robots – Dr Walters from the project says, “perhaps even provide the heartbeat for a cyborg-like machine or biological automaton”.

Shadow Robot Company

Shadow, a long withstanding British robotics company is now based in Future Space. The team have produced multiple successful tools using robotics, most notably the Shadow Dexterous Hand that takes a true anthropomorphic approach.

It’s also in the midst of the CHIRON project (Care at Home using Intelligent Robotic Omni-functional Nodes) which implement robotic systems in specific locations around the home to help tasks from your daily morning routine to assistance when preparing your meals.

 

The Dexterous Hand: See how it works
 

But that’s certainly not all. Shadow is also busy working on their new smart grasping system that can effectively replicate the movement of a human hand grip without the need for an additional kit.

Rich tells us what an exciting time it is for the company: “We’re proudest of selling robots to two of the world’s space agencies, NASA and ESA, although the Incredible Bionic Man project goes a long way on the ‘wow’ factor!”

UWE’s Robots

UWE’s latest quest is to tackle to the dangers of nuclear waste – and they’re using robots to help them out!

As the cost of clearing the UK’s nuclear is waste is estimated at an eye watering cost of up to £219 billion over 129 years, the development of autonomous robots who could do the job for us will be invaluable.

Tony Pipe, Professor of Robotics and Autonomous Systems at UWE Bristol and Deputy Director of the BRL, says, “This project will allow Bristol Robotics Laboratory researchers to further develop, apply and then exploit their world-renowned expertise in advanced multi-robot and human-robot interaction systems to support this safety-critical domain, and hence achieve valuable societal and environmental impact for the UK.”

The results won’t just benefit the environment, but also can be deployed in other hazardous situation such as mining, space, sub-sea or even in bomb disposal!

Wearable Robotic Tools

Health tech is a booming industry that’s producing invaluable results and the South West isn’t taking a back seat when it comes to research in this area.

Professor Sanja Dogramadzi at the Bristol Robotics LabA €4 million HORIZON 2020 funded project led by Professor Sanja Dogramadzi (pictured right) at BRL and UWE Bristol, seeks to use haptic feedback and smart glasses to improve keyhole surgery.

Utilising robots in this area means minimal invasion as well as enhancing the surgeon’s performance. The robot systems will be worn by the surgeon and transmit the surgeon’s own movements to the closed surgical interface, thus reducing the challenges in using the technology.

Robots in the theatre: How exoskeletons and smart glasses will change operations

 

The smart glasses being developed by the team will give the surgeon a realistic image of what is happening inside the body, for the first time ever.

Get involved yourself

Want to get into robotics yourself? Check out our guide to becoming a robotics designer. And here are a couple of other places where you can get some help getting started, or even help you create and grow a robotics startup company:

Bristol Robogals

Bristol Robogals is a global project that came to Bristol in 2010 that encourages young women to get stuck into tech.

There is an evident gender split in the wonderful world of robotics and Bristol Robogals is constantly tackling this issue. Isolating half of the population means we’re missing out on a lot of potential talent – too often, young girls aren’t presented with the same opportunities to get involved in STEM related learning. But, University of Bristol student run Robogals is changing the way things are done in the city.

Visiting schools is a huge part of what they do. And of course, they have their own robots too! Robogals says they arrange, “student volunteers to visit girls schools to run LEGO robotics workshops. In these fun and educational classes, students learn the basics of engineering, robotics and programming using LEGO Mindstorms NXT kits. This also prepares students to enter school robotics competitions such as FIRST LEGO League.”

“In these fun and educational classes, students learn the basics of engineering, robotics and programming using LEGO Mindstorms NXT kits. This also prepares students to enter school robotics competitions such as FIRST LEGO League.”

Future Space

UWE’s flagship enterprise and innovation facility, opened as part of a £16 million University Enterprise Zone, has already attracted a myriad of robotics projects.

Future Space will host a range of science and technology businesses in its co-working space, creating a culture of shared knowledge and providing access to an equipped laboratory, workshops and dedicated offices.

Professor Steven West CBE, DL Vice-Chancellor at The University of the West of England (UWE), says, “It provides support to startups and grow-on businesses through the office, work hub, wet lab space and close connection to the Bristol Robotics Laboratory and the University.”

What makes Future Space so unique is that it directly connects entrepreneurs with some of the best graduate talent in the region. As Bristol has aptly been nicknamed the ‘sticky city’ because of so many students staying in the region after they graduate, this is an ingenious setup.

Future Space was officially opened by the Duke of York earlier at the prestigious [email protected] event, and we bet it’s things aren’t going to quieten down anytime soon.

Fancy getting involved with this exciting development? You can book a tour to check it out today!

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