Profile: Bristol Robotics Lab16th April 2014
Officially opened in May 2012, the Bristol Robotics Laboratory is a collaborative partnership between the University of the West of England (UWE) and the University of Bristol.
Located on UWE’s Frenchay campus, it is the largest academic centre for robotics research in the UK with a vibrant community of over 100 scholars and innovative industry practitioners.
David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, explains: ‘Robotics has a whole host of everyday applications, from helping ageing populations to improving manufacturing processes. The BRL harnesses collective strengths of its university partners, and brings together the best expertise from industry and the academic community to spearhead Britain’s effort to become a world leader in this fascinating and exciting area of science.’
Recent projects have included work on innovative 4D Mapping Systems, ground breaking research into artificial muscles, and new plans for Unmanned Air Systems. This diversity demonstrates BRL’s pledge to being the nation’s leading facility for multi-disciplinary robotics, and helps to establish ‘Silicon Gorge’ – an area stretching between Bristol, Bath, Swindon and Gloucester – as the UK’s centre of tech innovation.
Professor Chris Melhuish, Director of BRL, states: “We are on the threshold of an exciting new era in British robotics, and our programmes have already made significant contributions in many areas. Our interdisciplinary approach brings together biologists, surgeons, engineers, psychologists, aerodynamicists, computer scientists and material scientists, and together we’ve been able to explore new areas that impact on the real world.
“Our researchers think outside the lab and consider how findings can have a positive impact on society. We take this blue sky thinking to the market and encourage new business to realise its potential.
One project that has recently drawn much attention for its green credentials and forward-thinking is the BioEnergy Team’s attempt to reinvent the toilet with so-called ‘Urine-tricity’.
The technology enables small electric devices, such as mobile phones, to be powered and recharged with urine, which is collected in a ‘smart toilet’. Through feeding the urine to microbial fuel cells (MFCs), sufficient electricity is generated to power up the device, whilst the liquid is also sanitised.
Dr Ioannis Ieropoulos explains: “Microbial fuel cells work by employing live microbes which feed on urine (fuel) for their own growth and maintenance. The MFC is in effect a system which taps a portion of that biochemical energy used for microbial growth, and converts that directly into electricity.
“Participating in the Reinvent the Toilet Fair presents us with a fantastic opportunity to meet up with other researchers and manufacturers from around the world.â€
BRL also houses the Robotic Ambient Assisted Living Studio, which develops robots and smart devices to assist older people and help them maintain active, independent lives.
The project aims to produce a robotic platform that couples wearable health monitors with speech-based interaction systems – providing people with an easy to use facility for keeping in touch with relatives, friends, medical personnel and carers.
A further area of research centres on intelligent autonomous systems that are capable of human interaction. The CHRIS project (Cooperative Human Robot Interactive Systems) aims to fully understand the capabilities of artificial intelligence and applying them to the real world.
Professor Melhuish concludes: “Robotics and Autonomous Systems are now recognised as one of the eight great technologies and the work at the BRL is at the forefront of developing a pipeline for innovation. The UK must continue to match investment levels seen in the EU and US to ensure we remain competitive and reap the current and future economic benefits.â€
There’s a strong emphasis at BRL on making the capabilities of robotics more accessible and feasible for use in British business. The multidisciplinary team are focused on ensuring their facilities continue bringing together the most talented academics and industry professionals to benefit the region and wider economy.