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Home >Blogs>Charlotte Stonestreet >Funding crisis on the horizon?

Funding crisis on the horizon?

21 June 2019

The partners of the Horizon 2020 SOMA Consortium recently announced the end of their highly acclaimed project to advance the state-of-the-art robotic manipulation capabilities for industry.

As part of the venture, UK technology and engineering pioneer, Ocado has been working in partnership Europe’s leading robotic researchers, academics and scientists from the Technische Universität Berlin, Ocado, the University of Pisa, IIT - Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR, the German Aerospace Center), and the Institute of Science and Technology Austria.

The traditional approach to robotic grasping and in-hand manipulation uses rigid hands and considers the object’s environment as an obstacle. Traditional research focused on exploring ways to grasp an object without coming into contact with its surroundings.

The SOMA project marks a paradigm shift in approach by using soft hands that can easily adapt to the shape of the object, and leverage the physical constraints of the environment as opportunities to guide manipulation. This fundamental change in approach was inspired by the ways in which humans use their hands.

“The thousands of trials we performed clearly demonstrated that humans grasp and manipulate objects in very different ways from how roboticists had imagined for 50 years. This research inspired us to use soft, compliant hands and to actively exploit the environment in much the same way that humans do. Today, SOMA hands can perform robust grasping in dynamic, open, and highly variable environments without having to rely on a very accurate perception of the system, or the geometric CAD model of the object,” said Professor Oliver Brock, Head of the Robotics and Biology Laboratory, Technische Universität Berlin.

Horizon 2020 is the EU’s biggest ever research and innovation programme, with nearly €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020) – in addition to the private investment that this money will attract. The UK has secured €5.1 billion of funding to date (14.3% of the total). Taking great ideas from the lab to the market, it promises breakthroughs, discoveries and world-firsts. Coupling research and innovation, Horizon 2020 is helping to achieve sustainable growth with its emphasis on excellent science, industrial leadership and tackling societal challenges.

The UK and EU’s intention is that the eligibility of UK researchers and businesses to participate in Horizon 2020 will remain unchanged for the remaining duration of the programme. This has been agreed as part of the Financial Settlement which was signed-off by both UK and European Commission negotiators in a draft Withdrawal Agreement. In the event of a ‘no deal’ scenario, the UK’s departure from the EU would mean UK organisations may be unable to access funding for Horizon 2020 projects after exit day.

Of course, when Horizon 2020 comes to an end next year, whatever the scheme that moves into its place, the UK will have no participation. It’s not even the funding that is the biggest issue here (although I can’t see the UK government stepping up to the mark in terms of financial support by any stretch of the imagination), it’s the fact that the best and most innovative UK companies and institutions will not have the same easy opportunities to work with their EU counterparts on such projects. A lose-lose situation all round.