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Launch – UKRAS STEPS – (UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems Strategic Technical Platform) EPSRC project at Leeds

We are pleased to share this exciting news from our members at the University of Leeds:

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-class UK RAS research

Leeds, United Kingdom, February 26th, 2024 – The UK’s RAS technician community has been given a major boost today with the formal launch of the UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems Strategic Technical Platform (UKRAS STEPS) which has been given a £2 million award from a £16 million Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and UKRI Digital Research Infrastructure (DRI) investment.

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 instance, 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. 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.

UKRAS STEPS aims to revolutionize the environment for RTs in the UK, with the following high-level aims:

  • Elevating Individual Technical Knowledge, Skills, and career development of RTs in the field of Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) in the UK;
  • 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;
  • Implementing a flagship programme that is professionally managed, ensuring inclusivity, ethical practices, programmatic sustainability, and environmental consciousness.

Led by Professor Robert Richardson, University of Leeds, who is the former executive chair of the EPSRC UKRAS Network, UKRAS STEPS will follow the highly successful operational model of the network to ensure the greatest impact across a diverse community of its current 37 university members. The leadership team also includes Professor Samia Nefti-Meziani OBE, University of Birmingham, Dr Briony Thomas and Mr Andrew Blight, University of Leeds, Dr Salzitsa Anastasova-Ivanova, Imperial College London, and Mr Steve Maclaren, National Robotarium, Heriot Watt- University.

Professor Robert Richardson commented, “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.”

UKRAS STEPS is set to coordinate a diverse array of activities including networking and strategic roadmap events, such as the UK Technicians’ Festival, symposia, focused workshops, public engagement initiatives, and training courses. Moreover, it will actively engage online through various channels such as social media, web platforms, and user forums. The platform is geared towards enhancing collaboration with the industry by fostering interdisciplinary mobility, facilitating industrial secondment, and promoting mentorship schemes. Through collaboration with the community, UKRAS STEPS will identify countries of strategic significance with world-leading expertise and will organise international visits to strengthen global connections.