Groundbreaking robotics platform for Research Technicians wins £2 million UKRI fund

The UK’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) technician community has been given an extraordinary boost after an initiative led by the University of Leeds secured £2 million.

UKRAS STEPS – the UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems Strategic Technical Platform – was awarded significant investment as part of a wider £16 million fund from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and UKRI Digital Research Infrastructure (DRI).

Pioneered by the University, UKRAS STEPS will create a dynamic, person-driven strategic technology platform that empowers Research Technicians (RTs) to develop, while building an inclusive community to enhance the environment and delivery of world-leading RAS research.

UKRAS STEPS is led by Professor Robert Richardson, the former executive chair of the EPSRC UKRAS Network, and the Director of both the Institute of Design, Robotics and Optimisation and EPSRC National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems at Leeds.

Supporting crucial experts

RAS Research Technicians (RTs) play a crucial role in advancing world-class research by contributing essential technical expertise and support to academic endeavours. With a wealth of practical experience, they provide valuable insights and guidance to researchers.

The responsibilities of RTs within the field of RAS are diverse. For example, lab managers oversee access and upkeep of equipment, such as motion tracking systems, in RAS research labs. Field deployment technicians manage health and safety, logistics, and operational protocols for deploying custom drones in agricultural research. In systems engineering for RAS, experimental officers design and manufacture physical components for new small-scale inspection robots.

National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems, University of Leeds, UK Robotics Week, EPRSC UK-RAS Network, Peter Le Riche

Funding will help support cutting-edge robotics, including drones.

Software engineers programme autonomy algorithms onto physical robots and maintain a 'code-stack' for use by new PhD students and researchers. The outputs of research technicians are integral to the success of world-class research; their impact becomes evident when they depart, or when a skilled replacement cannot be found for a new role.

Professor Richardson said: “Research Technicians in Robotics and Autonomous Systems play a pivotal role in advancing robotics research across various industry sectors in the UK, spanning from transport and healthcare to manufacturing and unmanned systems.

“Despite their amazing contribution, career growth opportunities are limited and as a result, some areas experience high staff turnover. UKRAS STEPS will establish a dedicated platform to address these challenges by facilitating the development of secondments, training programmes and mentorship schemes.

“This initiative aims to create a roadmap for career advancement, mitigate recruitment issues, and foster succession planning while introducing new skills. Additionally, the platform seeks to enhance equality and diversity within the research technician workforce of universities in the UK through active engagement across the academic landscape.”

Three key goals

UKRAS STEPS aims to revolutionise the environment for RTs in the UK, through three high-level aims:

  1. Elevating individual technical knowledge, skills, and career development of RTs in the field of Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) in the UK;

  1. Transforming the UK RT landscape through activities such as networking, shared knowledge initiatives, community-driven activities, recognition, and promotion of achievements, fostering international collaborations, and advocating at the national level; and

  1. Implementing a flagship programme that is professionally managed, ensuring inclusivity, ethical practices, programmatic sustainability, and environmental consciousness.

The platform will follow the highly successful operational model of the EPSRC UKRAS Network to ensure the greatest impact across a diverse community of its current 37 university members.

In addition to Professor Richardson, the leadership team also includes Dr Briony Thomas and Andy Blight from the University of Leeds; Professor Samia Nefti-Meziani OBE from University of Birmingham; Dr Salzitsa Anastasova-Ivanova at Imperial College London, and Mr Steve Maclaren of the National Robotarium at Heriot-Watt University.

UKRAS STEPS and the other ten projects receiving funding in today’s announcement will benefit from the EPSRC’s extensive experience in supporting research software engineers, data wrangling, facility managers, and equipment specialists, as well as community development.

Jane Nicholson, Research Base Director at EPSRC, said: “Through these 11 new projects, the Strategic Technical Platform funding will help cultivate a thriving, dynamic, and vibrant community of research technicians.

“This community will not only support and elevate cutting-edge research in the UK, but also foster a sizeable, highly skilled and esteemed research technician network. The UK is a world leader in high-tech research and development and it's essential that we fully support the full breadth of skills needed for the workforce that deliver this innovation.”

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