Features / Bristol Robotics Laboratory

Welcome to the Future

By aphra evans, Friday Nov 3, 2017

In an unassuming building on a UWE Bristol campus, there’s a cavernous, space-age café where an agile four-legged robot does an interpretive dance. Nearby, a woman is sat thoughtfully under a sign advertising a drone consultancy, and down a corridor, a team is busy designing robotic prosthetic limbs.

It’s all rather fitting for a place called Future Space.

“It turns them into superheroes, rather than someone with a prosthetic limb,” says centre director Elaine McKechnie of resident company OpenBionics, which manufactures prosthetics for child amputees. We could soon see them on the NHS, as they are currently going through medical authorisation trials.

“They’re 3D printed and low cost to develop in comparison to other similar things. Not only can they change them as they grow up, but they can design them like Iron Man or Frozen!” McKechnie says.

Future Space is based at UWE Bristol in Frenchay

But health tech is by no means the only specialism at Future Space. In contrast, there’s Cerberus Security Laboratories which, despite being just twelve months old, works with brands as colossal as Huawei, the largest smartphone manufacturer in the world after Samsung.

They provide security for connected devices, because as these technologies evolve it’s vital that security systems evolve with them. We live in a world where even our light bulbs can be used as a stepping stone to our Wi-Fi passwords – so it’s lucky that founder and director Andrew Lindsay enjoys the creative challenges of the job.

“It’s always changing, and there are always new constraints,” he says. The company has its work cut out as more devices in our homes become connected. But is there really a risk that hackers can get to us through our kettles?

“It really depends on how much information you’re putting into a device, and whether that device and your use of it can lead to information about you,” he says. “It’s about configuring your home network correctly so that your devices are on one network and your PCs on another.”

He gives an example of connected devices gone wrong: AGA brought out a cooker with an individual SIM and number that you could text to make it turn on an hour before you arrived home. But it soon transpired that simply by changing the final digit of the phone number, you could take over someone else’s cooker. “They should’ve spoken to us!” he laughs.

The space is a hub for progressive technology

Down the corridor is Flexys, which uses AI and machine learning to help companies that lend money, like utilities providers. Their software analyses data around spending habits to flag vulnerable consumers and prevent a downward spiral of threatening letters and debt collection agencies, benefiting both company and customer alike.

“It’s not really the rock and roll end of technology,” admits chief technology officer Brian Smith. “We’re trying to create software that helps those organisations move from confronting people that are in financial difficulty to working with them – encouraging them to get in touch, helping them assess whether their arrangements are affordable, and helping them to detect customers who need additional support.”

Rock and roll it might not be, but after the 2008 crash it’s not hard to see why lenders and the economy as a whole could benefit from this kind of software.

Innovation extends beyond Future Space, too. Tacked on to the same building is Bristol Robotics Laboratory, the UK’s largest, which gets involved in some pretty weird-sounding things, including ‘whisker technology’, exploring how the sensitivity of cat whiskers can help develop technologies that pick up information about the sea bed without disturbing it.

Two other areas of research are tiny ingestible robots – which can take themselves off to the prostate gland to perform a mini-surgery before leaving the body of their own accord – and assisted living technologies.

One company, Miro, is developing a bot – something like an advanced Amazon Alexa – which could detect if an elderly person has had a fall by monitoring data from a smart bracelet, and then call an ambulance if needed.

Expansive research, game-changing technologies and high-end robotics – it’s all happening under one roof at Future Space.


Read more: The rise of the robots


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