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BMBF: “Robotics research” action plan

November 20, 2023. The integration of AI in robotic systems holds huge potential for Germany. With the Robotics Research Action Plan, the BMBF is joining forces and strategically aligning funding.

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Harnessing the innovation potential of AI-based robotics

Germany is the largest robotics market in Europe and has the fourth-highest robot density in the world. Intelligent robotics is highly relevant for the success of long-term transformations in the course of digitalization and for overcoming major social challenges, especially demographic change. In the intensifying global competition for innovation, technological sovereignty and sustainable value creation, robotics has a decisive role to play.

Current leaps in the development of basic technologies are now increasingly enabling robots to carry out complex tasks in changing environments and in close collaboration with humans. Thanks in particular to significant advances in AI research, robotics is being revitalized.

With its Future Strategy for Research and Innovation, the German government has set itself the goal of tapping into the major and, above all, new opportunities offered by robotics in order to strengthen Germany’s innovative power and secure Europe’s technological sovereignty. With this action plan, the BMBF is addressing this and making an active contribution to strengthening the national robotics ecosystem in the areas of research and skilled workers.

Fields of action

The BMBF has identified four specific fields of action in which there is the most urgent need for action.

1. Making innovations in basic technologies usable for robotics

Innovations in these basic technologies help robotics to achieve new levels of performance and open up new and disruptive application possibilities. As part of currently funded research priorities and programs, the BMBF is driving forward robotics-specific aspects that can have a high leverage effect for robotics at system level.

Initial situation:

  • In AI research, methods for controlling robots are primarily being investigated. This is particularly important for the dynamic learning of robots in unstructured environments, which also includes the training of AI models with simulated data. Linguistic interaction with robots also benefits from large AI models.
  • The real-time networking of robots is largely based on research into digital and networked systems. Powerful communication technologies enable cooperative collaboration between robots and allow the outsourcing of complex computing processes of robotic systems through computing resources in the network. The technologies of future 6G communication networks, for example, offer potential for human-machine interaction. This can lead to innovative solutions for networking robots in Industry 4.0 or in the healthcare sector.
  • Due to the high safety requirements, especially when working with humans, IT security technologies are included in development right from the start.
  • Powerful microelectronics contribute to the further development of robotics, for example through innovative sensor chips with neuromorphic processors. In particular, this enables the real-time control of robots in interaction with humans.

What we want to achieve:

  • Increase the performance and open up new application possibilities for robots by combining basic technologies
  • Advance the robotics of the future through AI
  • Research the fundamentals of networked robotics
  • Further develop high-performance microelectronics, for example sensors and neuromorphic chips, for robotics

What we do:

  • The BMBF will continue and further expand its support for research, young talent and, in particular, SMEs in the fields of AI and software engineering. AI and software engineering are also being researched in the application field of robotics, for example through several AI professorships and AI junior research groups or at the AI competence centers. The BMBF also funds research into the technological foundations of AI, such as explainability, robustness and transfer learning.
  • In the field of networking and security of digital systems, the BMBF will continue its funding activities on low-latency and highly reliable communication systems and thus continue to address important foundations of networked robotics. In the national 6G initiative, for example, highly relevant radio technologies for sensory detection of the environment, low-latency robot system control via communication networks, fast sensor technologies or distributed computing architectures for robotics applications are being developed for robotics. Overall, the funding activities are driving forward robotics solutions in Industry 4.0, medicine, healthcare and civil security.
  • In microelectronics, the BMBF is focusing on edge computing and hardware for AI-based applications. Another focus is on intelligent sensor technology, which is the basis for the safe interaction of robots in challenging environments.

2. Pooling and networking cutting-edge robotics research

The potential of intelligent robotics is based on innovations from cutting-edge research, which is why the BMBF is focusing on this area. Robotics is a highly interdisciplinary field: research and development in robotics require a broad spectrum of knowledge, from mathematics and computer science to data science and traditional mechanical engineering.

Initial situation:

  • In an international comparison, German robotics researchers are leaders in Europe and are also competitive on a global scale.
  • Global competitors such as the USA, Japan, South Korea and above all China are investing specifically in robotics research, and large technology companies also operate their own research departments in the field of robotics and AI.
  • In Germany, there is an ecosystem of numerous locations with a critical mass of highly cited scientists. Cutting-edge research in robotics is highly decentralized in Germany. Therefore, despite its excellence, there is a lack of international visibility and potential synergy effects remain untapped.

What we want to achieve:

  • Network top locations for German robotics research
  • Secure high international visibility and competitiveness with globally leading robotics centers, which are, for example, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford University or the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology
  • Develop a joint research roadmap for robotics research in Germany and link it closely to European projects
  • Broadly establish basic research for intelligent robotics

What we do:

  • Build a decentralized Robotics Institute Germany to bundle the existing cutting-edge research at the leading robotics locations spread across Germany.
  • In the first stage of expansion, a governance structure with a joint contact point is to be created, which will represent the cooperation network as an office and contact for cooperation worldwide. Networking with all relevant stakeholders in the robotics ecosystem is to be continuously driven forward and national robotics research is to be strategically aligned with the resulting platform. This includes joint research roadmaps and access concepts for robotics infrastructures of the partners in the “Robotics Institute Germany” as well as the processing of ethical, legal and social aspects, science communication and participatory formats.
  • For effective cooperation in the Robotics Institute Germany, a joint data platform for research and development is envisaged, which will accelerate the development of adaptive robotic systems through the exchange of data

Further action strategies of the Max Planck Society and the German Research Foundation can be found in the action plan.

3. Promote skilled workers for the robotics of the future

The use of intelligent robotics requires strong robotics expertise in research and industry. Qualified specialists are needed at all levels, from research into basic technologies to the integration of robotic systems for application. The training of specialists is therefore another focus of the BMBF’s activities.

Initial situation:

  • There is a large pool of students in the subjects of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science who are eligible to specialize in robotics. Germany is also traditionally strong in other relevant subject areas such as physics and mathematics.
  • There are a few robotics degree courses, but there is a lack of visibility across the board.
  • The skills required in robotics are also sought after in other subject areas. For example, other AI-based domains such as automated driving are also competing for specialists.

What we want to achieve:

  • Support the training of skilled workers based on research
  • Cooperate with existing training providers and enable them to make a leap in quality
  • Inspire and attract talent for robotics
  • Integrate basic technologies into robotics better and faster

What we are doing:

  • The Robotics Institute Germany is to be developed into a talent factory through targeted training and further education measures. A “Robotics Academy” will use the expertise and capacity of the decentralized institute to develop and establish a state-of-the-art academy program with modules for academic and professional education and training.
  • The existing educational institutions (universities, vocational schools, further education institutions) are to be given the opportunity to make a leap in quality throughout Germany, which will also continue the teaching of robotics at an excellent level of quality.
  • In order to get students excited about robotics, junior groups are to be prepared for and supported in participating in international robotics challenges.
  • In the field of networking and security of digital systems, the BMBF will promote the use of future communication systems in robotic systems as part of its 6G research initiative and specifically involve robotics specialists in order to sharpen their understanding of the potential of innovative networking technologies at an early stage.

4. Bringing intelligent robotics into application

Robotics for the automation of production, human-robot interaction, the use of robotics in civil security and robotics for harsh environmental conditions play an important role in application-oriented research.

Initial situation:

  • Further developments in robotics create new opportunities for the automation of production not only in large-scale industry, but also in the skilled trades. An important factor here is research into the acceptance and usability of robotic systems for the corporate context.
  • Robotics is one of the interactive technologies being researched to improve health and quality of life. Research is concerned with the question of how robots can be integrated into everyday life in the most beneficial way possible, e.g. in public spaces or in care. Particular attention is paid to ethical, legal and social aspects (ELSA) as part of an integrated research approach.
  • The operational capabilities of robotic systems in civil security, e.g. semi-autonomous rescue and recovery robots or decontamination systems for use in hostile environments, are being researched and tested at the German Rescue Robotics Center DRZ and the ROBDEKON competence center. The aim is to ensure that users in the fire department and disaster control have access to certified robotic components that have been reliably tested for use.
  • Powerful and resilient (wireless) communication systems are required in order to use robotics flexibly in production, in everyday life or in rescue operations in hostile environments.

What we want to achieve:

  • Ensure successful and accelerated industry transfer and the targeted involvement of SMEs
  • Make innovative robotics solutions usable for civil security
  • Achieve a better quality of life and social acceptance through intuitive interaction with robots
  • Design robots to be human-centric, so that they can also be used in trades and the service sector, for example
  • Developing robots for deep sea and earth observation
  • Further developing robotics for Industry 4.0 and production

What we are doing:

  • In order to expand the circle of SME users of robotics and accelerate the transfer from cutting-edge research to industry, the BMBF has implemented a new measure on “Robotics and SMEs” as part of the “Future of Value Creation” program under the title “SME-innovative: Future of Value Creation”.
  • The BMBF will continue its funding activities for the use of robots in civil security in the new research framework program (start at the beginning of 2024). The aim of the new program is still to contribute to the best possible equipment for emergency services. This will also be achieved through innovative robotic solutions that relieve the burden on emergency services, particularly in risky or health-endangering work, minimize hazards for them and support them in the effective search and rescue of people. The established competence centers for rescue robotics and decontamination are to be permanently established and transferred into an independent, self-sustaining operation.
  • In the field of interactive technologies, the BMBF will publish an innovation competition. Several robotics teams will take on standardized application-oriented tasks under real-world conditions with the aim of comparatively researching different approaches for demonstrators for later use. The tasks from the field of cleaning public areas address the entire range of relevant challenges in robotics, from functional requirements to interactivity with humans. This also lays an important foundation for the interaction of service robots and people in public spaces.
  • In the field of networking and security of digital systems, the BMBF will research the necessary powerful and resilient end-to-end communication systems such as 6G, including the complete robotic system. This will result in highly optimized solutions for intelligent robotics.

The action strategies of SPRIND, the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, the German Research Foundation and the Leibniz Association can be found in the action plan.

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Further links

👉 Robotics research action plan

Photo: pixabay

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