Agile Justin robot
Is the UK falling behind other countries in robotics? Pictured: People interact with "Agile Justin" by DLR at the 6th International Trade Fair for Automation and Mechatronics in Munich, earlier this yearReuters

The Technology Strategy Board wants to improve robot research in the UK by turning decommissioned nuclear sites and abandoned coal mines into testing sites for researchers to test out new robots.

A new proposal by the government agency wants to copy "Grand Challenges", a US government policy from the 1980s where researchers are encouraged to pursue a specific goal one or two decades in advance, and achieving that goal would represent a major advance in science, engineering or technology.

In this case, the goal would be to create more autonomous robots able to complete specific tasks – a direction that some robotics companies in the world are already taking, rather than having robot butlers that can do everything in one.

The UK government has granted the Technology Strategy Board £400 million in funds over the next year, and £150m has already been earmarked for research into robotics and autonomous systems (RAS).

Increasing investment into robotics

The board wants to see the UK lead the world in robot innovations, and wants to put more money into cities like Bristol and Edinburgh, which are already well known for their academic expertise within the robotics field.

At the moment, countries like Japan, South Korea, Germany and the US are most dominant in the RAS market, which is predicted to be worth £70bn by 2025, according to research firm McKinsey.

"Robots have often been positioned as a thing of the future, but today's strategy-launch emphasises the fact that they are very much of the here and now," science minister David Willetts is expected to say during a speech today according to a report from the BBC.

Heriot-Watt University's Professor David Lane headed the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Special Interest Group at the Technology Strategy Board that helped to draw up the proposal.

According to Lane, the UK is already leading in several types of robot technology, from driverless cars to technologies able to assist elderly people, to nuclear plant safety monitors and railway systems that can monitor and repair damaged tracks by themselves.

UK being left behind

However, a change of strategy is needed to create a business environment in the UK that helps to quickly commercialise these pioneering robotics technologies before other countries do.

"The UK has an exceptional heritage in many of the industries where robotics can be most useful," he said.

University of Sheffield robotics expert Professor Noel Sharkey told the BBC: "We need to act quickly if we don't want to be left behind. With the right course of action, we believe the UK could achieve 10% of the global market share by 2025.

"The UK is the lowest user of industrial robotics in the technically developed nations of Europe - well behind Spain and Italy. We have a lot of robotics talent in our universities with enormous potential to bring the UK to hi-tech glory.

"It is a massive market and we have already slipped well behind."