Video: Building robots of the future in Leeds

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IT might sound like something from a science fiction film. But a Yorkshire university is unveiling a new facility which will design and build the robots of the future.

The £4.3m National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems opens today at Leeds University with a robot cutting the ribbon.

Lucie the Robot

Lucie the Robot

The centre has the most advanced robot building equipment in the UK, and includes one of the world’s largest multi-material 3D printers, capable of making objects with both rigid and soft parts. It also has a laser cutter which focuses a laser beam through a jet of water to be able to cut any hard material, even diamond, with precision.

Dr Rob Richardson, director of the facility, said: “Leeds already has a great track record in robotics for surgical applications, patient rehabilitation, prosthetics, and exploration, but the new facility will revolutionise our ability to turn new concepts into reality. We’ll be able to make robots that are smaller, more intricate, more flexible and more integrated than ever before.

“Robotics has been identified by the Government as one of the areas where the UK can develop a technological edge and this facility puts Leeds and the North of England at the heart of that effort. Our vision is to build a world-leading centre for robotics and autonomous systems.” The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is spending £2.6m on equipment and the university has invested a £1.2m in equipment and lab improvements.

Lucie, an advanced robot that “can act intelligently in real-world environments”, will be on hand at the opening ceremony today to help demonstrate the potential of the facility.

Lecturer Dr Jordan Boyle said the university’s work was helping to create robots involved in both healthcare and exploration.

The Djedi robot, explored previously inaccessible tunnels in the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt and uncovered unknown markings left by the pyramid builders. The university is also working on creating miniature robots which could enter the human body. “One area we are looking at is creating a robot which could perform a colonoscopy,” Dr Boyle added.

He said the new facility’s equipment would allow the university to build robots on a much smaller scale than was previously possible.

“If you think about the human body it is a very constrained area for a robot to work so being able to create robots on a smaller scale is important.”

The centre will create a new generation of miniature microwave and ultrasound sensors for surgical robots and the facility is also equipped with a 3D visualisation studio that allows robot builders to inspect digital models of robot designs in fine detail. And researchers are developing a new micro-assembly station using remote motion-sensing equipment to translate hand movements into very precise actions by a robot arm, allowing users to build mechanisms too small for the human hand.

The university’s vice chancellor Sir Alan Langlands said: “The national facility is a powerful asset not only for the University of Leeds, but also for the UK’s robotics sector. It brings together technology and expertise that are the envy of institutions across the world and will enable us to play a leading role in realising the enormous potential of advanced robotic technologies.”

Professor Philip Nelson, EPSRC’s Chief Executive, said: “Our investment in the National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems will help us attain the goals of the UK’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems strategy, launched earlier this year. The potential effects of robotics on the way we will live in the future are vast. Already we have innovations springing from research that are improving healthcare, manufacturing, nuclear safety and transport. EPSRC will continue to encourage research, discovery and innovation in this field.”

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