What does the year hold for the development of technology in the UK? Here’s what five UKRI challenge directors predict. 

Tony Harper, challenge director – Faraday Battery Challenge

The UK is globally competitive in next-generation battery technologies. Many of the country's battery SMEs are leading in their fields, outperforming international enterprises which receive large commercial investment.

Through the Faraday Battery Challenge, delivered by UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), Britain has developed institutions which will accelerate the advancement of emerging and next-generation technologies, including the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (UKBIC) which will become operational in 2021, and is the first facility of its kind in the world.

There is great opportunity for the UK automotive industry as it electrifies. It is predicted that 1.5 million electric vehicle batteries will be produced per year in the UK by 2040.

To support this, about seven UK battery manufacturing facilities, or ‘gigafactories’ are required. The Faraday Battery Challenge is working with other British institutions, companies and potential investors to help accelerate gigafactory plans in the country.

The electrification of the automotive industry alone has the potential to generate 78,000 jobs and there are also significant opportunities as other sectors – including aerospace, rail and marine – look to electrify. All of this relies on the UK developing world-class technology and a robust, local battery value chain.

I strongly welcome the government’s ban on petrol/diesel cars by 2030. Regulations of this natures drive investment and innovation.

As always, you also have to look out for un-intended consequences and, in a global industry fighting a global challenge, it is much better if there is global regulatory alignment. I am sure Britain will push for this in the run-up to CoP26.

Gary Cutts, Future Flight challenge director

Today, drones are widely used for undertaking aerial services, principally surveying and filming but the missions are conducted in the ‘visual pilot line of sight’ of a remote pilot.

This year will likely see much more wide-scale flying of drones ‘beyond visual line of sight’ which will see the application of autonomous technologies either to fully control flights or as an aide for remote pilots. 

This will allow for much more extensive missions such as surveying long stretches of power lines. Such a capability will also make drone use for goods delivery feasible – it is likely we will see large-scale trials in this area with medical usage an early priority.

We will also see more significant demonstration of Unmanned Air Traffic Management (UTM) systems to provide safe management of the airspace for such flights and the development of detect-and-avoid technologies.

Innovations in these areas are the key to unlocking safe flight for larger numbers of vehicles and eventually of allowing drones and larger aircraft to operate in shared airspace.

On air mobility we will see a number of the manufacturers move to longer range trials of larger vehicles, perhaps in the five- to 10-mile class of experimental flights. I also expect to see some of these showcase concept visions for e-VTOL aircraft above four seats.

On the larger aircraft we will see significant development in hydrogen propulsion with more flight trials of small regional aircraft and with increasing activity on the initial concepts for hydrogen infrastructure.

The Future Flight Challenge funded Project HEART (Hydrogen- Electric and Automated Regional Transportation) is a good example with its focus on the development of novel aircraft with hydrogen fuel cell powertrains and green hydrogen infrastructure (production, storage, handling and refuelling) to support full scale operations.

Away from the technology we will see an acceleration in the development of aviation regulations and standards as the industry prepares itself for larger-scale operational trials.

UKRI challenge director – Driving the Electric Revolution, Dr Will Drury

The year 2020 has seen great movement forward for electrification, particularly with electric vehicles. During the present year, I expect we will see more iteration rather than revolution, such as new vehicles with increased range and speed of charge. There will be much anticipation on the unveiling of the next-generation EVs.

Beyond EVs, there will be significant developments in the innovation and manufacturing of offshore wind power, with initiatives and growth of supply chains.

Prime minister Boris Johnson announced, in his 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, that the country would produce enough wind energy to power every home by 2030, and as such there would be new opportunities opening up in UK with a focus on c.15 MW turbines. As well as benefits for the environment, this focus on wind power has the potential to create up to 60,000 jobs.

Particularly in the run-up to COP26, there will be a huge push on climate change and the need to look at our lifestyle as well as the technology we use.

The UK has targets for net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – as net zero is a 'system problem', you need to understand and solve the whole issue using a co-ordinated cross sector systems approach, rather than looking at problems in isolation.

The central purpose of the 'Driving the Electric Revolution Challenge' is to aid the UK’s move towards electrification by investing in power electronics, machines and drives (PEMD), which are a crucial technology across sectors from transport to energy to agriculture.

Net zero is not possible without PEMD, and without the Driving the Electric Revolution challenge, PEMD manufacturing in the UK will not happen at scale.

In November 2020, we announced the winners of the latest Driving the Electric Revolution competition, with more than 21 innovative projects sharing nearly £6 million in funding to help the UK reach net zero. In 2021 we are running our flagship competition.

Designed to be industry led, we will be looking for collaborative, innovative projects that will drive the UK’s push towards net zero. These projects will have a significant impact on the UK supply chain across all areas of PEMD, to help further the electrification of transport, energy and industrial sectors.

There will be a growing appreciation for the impact and benefits electrification has – and also its potential. Particularly as we recover following the pandemic, manufacturing and building back better and greener will be more important than ever.

Ben Winter, head of engagement and programme, at UK government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles

In 2021, we will see more advanced assisted driving technologies and potentially early, limited automated technologies will begin to enter commercial markets for consumers to buy. These new technologies may require new legislation and regulations that change the law to allow the technology on public roads.

As self-driving technology continues to evolve, the UK will continue to focus on developing new safety and security assurance processes to ensure that fully automated vehicle technology – when ready for commercial use – can be certified before entering public roads.

Last year saw Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAV) companies around the world explore the potential for automated delivery vehicles. This year, we will likely see further investment in and testing of this application.

A UK government-funded project for example, Robopilot, led by British, Unicorn Arrival, will be using cutting-edge automated technologies to deliver packages via fully electric vans in 2021.

Companies in Europe, China and the USA will continue to work towards the deployment of self-driving vehicles in complex urban environments. In the UK, for example, the ENDEAVOUR project will be trialling level 4 automated technology in three major cities in the UK, including Oxford and London.

The trials will demonstrate automated driving in a variety of urban and city environments and will develop engagement models with local authorities and communities to help them prepare for the future launch of automated vehicle services.

As the UK government seeks to harness new technologies to improve public transport, CAV will be trialled as part of a more integrated passenger mobility service.

The MultiCAV project, trialled in South Oxfordshire, will test truly multi-modal mobility as a service including multiple types of all electric automated shuttles and buses. For the first time, it will extend real passenger carrying services by a range of automated vehicles, into mixed traffic on UK public roads. 

CAV will also be trialled in mass passenger transport, with CAVForth, a Scotland-based project, providing a globally significant demonstration of UK self-driving bus capability along a 14-mile (21km) route across the Forth Road Bridge between Fife and Edinburgh.

UKRI challenge director – robotics, Andrew Tyrer

Wind power is the UK’s strongest source of renewable energy and the prime minister has shown his faith in it with pledges for all UK homes to be powered by wind energy by 2030. However, being remote and off-shore means wind farms require efficient installation and then ongoing inspection, maintenance and repair.

Robotics can be utilised to automate many inspection and maintenance tasks driving decreased lifetime cost of the assets; decreased downtime; increased availability to generate electricity; and not putting operatives in dangerous workplaces, so reducing health and safety incidents and increasing productivity.

In 2021, we will see developments in service robotic solutions, with the aim of robots being ‘housed’ on offshore wind farms permanently and future generations of wind turbines being designed to be repaired and maintained by robots throughout their lifecycle.

Wind energy makes up 20% of the UK’s electricity supply and is rapidly expanding – by 2030, the UK offshore wind farm market is set to reach a capacity of 40GW, so it is crucial for the future of the country’s green energy.

Additionally, in 2021, we can expect to see increased drive towards using service robotic solutions (rather than just manufacturing) in the agriculture, construction and healthcare sectors.

Many proposed solutions include the use of co-bots, interacting, responding and helping manual workers to increase productivity. On farms robots are being developed to help plant, manage, harvest and process crops. In construction robots will be utilised to assemble new structures, inspect, maintain and repair and then finally decommission them.

In healthcare, use of autonomous robots to disinfect wards and distribute just-in-time supplies are actively being trialled in hospital environments. In home settings companion robots are being utilised, for instance, reminding somebody to take medication where they might otherwise forget.