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Horizon 2020: looking ahead to a robot renaissance

26 March 2012

The EU views robotics as a major area of research, critical to the European economy, and has named the industry as one targeted to receive a share of the euro80bn funding pledged last year under the Horizon 2020 initiative, a huge package of measures unfolding from 2014 to boost research, innovation and competitiveness throughout Europe.

Not surprisingly, Horizon 2020 set the scene for this year's European Robotics Forum, held over three days earlier this month, and providing an opportunity for Europe's leading roboticists to present their work in areas such as robotics research and advanced manufacturing technology. Presentations covered just about everything from robots in agriculture to drones, with major themes centering on co-operative and autonomous robots, and robots capable of working alongside humans without safety barriers.

The European Robotics Forum is the largest robot industry and academia gathering in the EU. This year's event was held at Odense, Denmark, and delegates were assured of a renewed commitment to robotics R&D from the European Commission itself. Khalil Rouhana, director for digital content and cognitive systems at the European Commission's DG INFSO, reminded his 350-strong audience that the six-year Horizon 2020 project will have one of the biggest research and innovation budgets of any advanced economy, or group of economies, in the world. "Successful economies," he said, "are those that are able to keep their industrial base modernised. Robots are the mainstream technology of the future - in our everyday life, in business and in industry."

With roboticists beginning to prepare for Horizon 2020, one particular area that caught the interest of delegates was that of service robots, a fast growing sector that will see increasing use of robotics technology in human care, as opposed to their more familiar repetitive manufacturing applications. As sensors, navigation systems and object recognition systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated, the potential benefits to the elderly, the disabled and caring professionals are large indeed.

The Adaptable Living Assistant, for example, is a mobile robot that provides monitoring, cognitive and social assistance, while Robosoft's 'Kompai' features both speech and voice recognition to provide a navigable companion platform which will soon boast health monitoring devices. Several exhibitors presented their rehabilitation robots, with one - ARMin, a new robot for patient-co-operative arm therapy - winning the prestigious, euRobotics Technology Transfer prize.

Meanwhile, Martin Hägele, head of the Department of Robot Systems at Fraunhofer IPA, led the Industrial Robotics strand of the Forum. According to the International Federation of Robotics, some 150,000 industrial robots were sold worldwide in 2011 and the market is growing as the robotics penetrate new markets like food, logistics and the chemical industry. Hägele predicts a future where humans and robots will work alongside each other collaboratively and, as he put it, "without fences".

His words were echoed by Peter Schlaich, senior expert in the field of Production Automation at Robert Bosch Corporate Research, who claimed a growing demand for robots able to work without the need for safety barriers, that don't need retooling, that are capable of learning intuitively and which can be set up quickly. The Forum was shown several examples of such robots of the future, from KUKA's mobile omniRob to Robert Bosch's APAS system, a versatile and quick-to-install pick-and-place robot. All are expected to be in deployment by 2014.

If you missed the Forum, there will be another opportunity to catch up with things at the second European Robotics Week, commencing November 26, 2012. Last year, the inaugural event featured 350 robotics events across 19 countries with 80,000 people participating.

There will be more information about the 2012 event nearer the time, here, where you can find out more about last year's activities.

Les Hunt

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