16 July 2020

Robotics distance learning project could close skills gap and boost economy

A new distance learning project that will enable more people to develop skills in robotics and autonomous systems, to help close the skills gap and drive forward productivity in the UK, is being launched by researchers from the Uni of Sheffield.

Autonomous cars displaying sensors
  • University of Sheffield researchers launch a new distance learning project to help more people develop skills in robotics and autonomous systems.
  • Project will use cloud computing and state-of-the-art robots to develop distance learning activities in robotics for people across all educational levels
  • Students at all levels will pilot a new way of working where they can write programs at home and test them in simulation, then run the program on a remote robot to see if it still works in the real-world - a first for robotics teaching
  • School pupils will be able to program a companion robot from home with the help of online learning resources that tests and refine their skills. Lesson plans will be developed for teachers and project will utilise diverse role models to help inspire pupils
  • Apprentices and degree-level engineering students will be able to develop their skills remotely, to meet the needs of industry, with a focus on programming robotic arms for use in factory settings

The project, led by both Professor Tony Prescott from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Computer Science, and Dr Jonathan Aitken from the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering (ACSE) will use cloud computing and state-of-the-art robots to develop distance learning activities in robotics for people across all educational levels.

Piloting a new way of learning in robotics education, the project will enable students to write programs from home, test them using a simulation, then run the program on a remote robot to see if it works in the real-world - a first for robotics teaching.

The project will also focus on addressing inequalities in the robotics and autonomous systems industry. It will provide positive and diverse role models together with the resources needed to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go on and develop the skills to study and establish a career in the industry. 

With the UK economy needing to improve productivity to help recover from Covid-19 and remain competitive on an international level, the Sheffield-led team is developing a state-of-the-art robotic arm and manufacturing cell that engineering students at apprentice and degree-levels can use to develop skills in using robotics and autonomous systems in manufacturing. 

Engineering apprentices at the University of Sheffield AMRC Training Centre and the University’s degree-level computer science and systems engineering students will be able to reprogram the robotic arm and manufacturing cell remotely.

Beginners can program a robotic simulation using the graphical language Google Blockly while more advanced students can program with the widely-used Python language. Students will be able to test their programs on physical hardware, remotely and in real-time using robot platforms located at the University. This is a new approach to robotics teaching that is being piloted for the first time in Sheffield.

The project will work with the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) to understand the skills gap experienced by industry in the Sheffield City Region and beyond in order to develop appropriate training strategies. 

Resources that will enable people outside of education to retrain and learn new skills in robotics and autonomous systems are also being developed by the researchers.

Within ACSE, and especially the aligned Confident Safety Integration for Collaborative Robots (CSI:Cobot) project, we are looking at remote development and operation of robotic systems. This is especially the case for manufacturing where a company may not have physical access to their equipment they require for operation. Without that access they will need to programme and evaluate the operation of the systems from a distance. We will leverage the digital twins we are producing of collaborative workspaces to make this process as easy as possible to design new robotics applications at a distance. 

However, it also matches the needs of our students. Robotics tends to be a costly practice, done in a safe space. Yet we want students to be able to access equipment, and allow them to do this for prolonged periods of time, not just whilst a lab is open; but also at night and over weekends when we'd traditionally be closed. This project will look at developing digital twins that can plug into physical systems, to reflect their operation, but also operate independently so that programming can happen safely both offline and at a distance.

Dr Jonathan Aitken

Academic in the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering (ACSE) at the University of Sheffield

For primary and secondary schools, the project will trial a cloud-based simulation of the robot MiRo - a fully programmable autonomous robotic pet - created by the University spin-out company Consequential Robotics. MiRo is currently being used across the UK and abroad to pilot new applications for robotics in education and healthcare. 

The cloud-based simulation, MiRoCloud, will enable school pupils at both primary and high school levels to program a MiRo robot from home with the help of distance learning materials, tests, resources and lesson plans that are being developed by the University of Sheffield-led team. 

The project is working with schools that have high numbers of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and pupils with special educational needs to help widen access to the robotics industry. 

With equality and diversity being a key priority for the project, the educational resources are being developed with the aim of helping more of those who are currently under-represented in robotics to see where they can access learning opportunities and make their own contribution.

The research team will work with DiscoveryStem.org, a Sheffield-based educational consultancy that is at the forefront in developing schools teaching in robotics, to develop and share learning resources with primary and secondary schools across the UK. In the Sheffield City Region, the researchers will work in partnership with Beck Primary School - a large inclusive Sheffield school. 

Dr Becky Parry from the University’s School of Education is leading on ensuring the inclusivity outcomes of the project. Dr Parry said:

“As a society, and in response to the rapid development of new technologies, we need new voices to help us imagine the potential value they will have to our lives. This project will be designed so that children can experience working in robotics as coders, designers or researchers and therefore imagine themselves in these roles in the future. 

“The researchers and students involved in running the project will seek to provide positive and diverse role models which we know are key to children making decisions about the subjects they are interested in. In the current climate it is heartening to be part of a project which attempts to address structural inequalities in the short-term but also in terms of imagining the potential of robotics in the future to help us address the big issues of our times.” 

Professor Prescott added:

“We hope that the new distance learning project will help us to develop scalable approaches for plugging the skills gap, then we can work together with schools, universities, industry and policy makers to roll this out across the UK.”

The distance learning project is linked to a national task group - Skills and Education in Robotics and Autonomous Systems (www.seras.org.uk), supported by the UK EPSRC Robotics and Autonomous Systems Network, that is preparing a White Paper on how to transform the UK’s skills in robotics and autonomous systems.

Led by the University of Sheffield, the White Paper is being developed in partnership with universities across the UK, the Institute of Coding, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the National STEM Centre.

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