Essex Robotics

A Brief History of Robotics at Essex University

The move into robotics and the creation of a new laboratory to support such work was first proposed to the Department of Computer Science by Professor Victor Callaghan in a report written in February 1992 (see Brooker Lab Proposal; in particular, look at section 4, page 7, which outlines the vision for a robotics lab). The inspiration was the same as had motivated the early computer science pioneers; to facilitate work on intelligent machines. In addition, science fiction is the food of many computer science students and integrating the various strands of computer science around robotics offered students a highly motivating and realistic environment for assignments and project work (see the later Creative Science Foundation work by Professor Callaghan with Intel on motivating science research via using science fiction scenarios). Previously, the laboratory had been used as a computer systems teaching facility (supporting the then new technology of micro-processors!). The Background to this proposal was that Essex University had a strong background in computer hardware and systems (amongst the top in the UK), having being founded by staff that had came predominately from Manchester University, which was famed for its expertise in this area. Also in the late 70’s the Microprocessor revolution hit the UK University in the form of significant government funding to set up courses to make the UK a global leader of this new technology. Essex had done well from this policy, setting up a degree in Microprocessors which attracted a large intake. However, by the mid 80’s interest in hardware was dwindling, student recruitment was falling and, as a result, computer hardware courses were being cut, with lecturers on the hardware side of the department facing redeployment into the growing software side. This then was the context that Professor Callaghan faced when he joined Essex University in 1986, and the challenge was how to reverse these fortunes; his answer was a proposal to refocus hardware teaching (and research) around the more “sexy” topic of mobile robots.

In October of 1992 Professor Callaghan ‘s proposal was approved by Dr Paul Scott (the then Head of Department) and resources were provided for the new laboratory. Professor Callaghan headed a team consisting of Malcolm Lear, Dave Lyons, Tony Lawson, Mike Sanderson and Paul Chernett who formed the nucleus of the group which implemented the new robotics facility. Later Martin Colley and John Standeven joined the development team. The software core was a RTOS called VxWorks from Wind River in Alameda, California (the same software as used in many space robots), with Steve Harris of Wind River becoming a valuable consultant to the development team. Wind River sponsored an annual prize for the best student project in the Brooker Laboratory. Other founding partners included HM (a UK manufacturer of industrial computers) and British Power. By October 1993 the facility was completed, being formally opened in 1994 by Prof Michael Brady, a British AI pioneer working at the University of Oxford. An article reporting this was published in the Essex University newspaper “Wyvern”.  At the time the new facility was revolutionary in its aims and scope and resulted in TV features (See video recording of BBC News report on Lab opening), newspaper articles (see articles from the Essex County Standard, Wyvern, Square 1 and Focus (see a very young Prof Hani Hagras!) plus numerous scientific papers.  One of the earliest publicly accessible papers that describes the Brooker Laboratory is  “The Brooker Lab for intelligent embedded systems” was published in the SEDA Journal Improving the Quality of Teaching and Learning in Computing , 11-23, SEDA, July 1995. SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) which is a professional association for higher educational developers in the UK that seeks to promote innovation and good practice in higher education.  This document describes the original motivation for the work although, like the original proposal, its value is now simply as a historical record.

The laboratory was named after the founding Professor of the Department, Professor Tony Brooker

One very notable outcome of this early work was a collaboration with the Department of Engineering at Writtle Agricultural College which which produced an experimental  ‘farm robotic vehicle’, described in many of the early papers by the Intelligent Environments Group and this 1999 article in the Wyvern. What is not widely known, but perhaps even more significant, was that the communication channel afforded by the connection between Writtle’s then head of engineering, Malcolm Carr-West, and Essex’s Vic Callaghan was instrumental in starting the discussions that led to current inter-institutional relationship!.

The Brooker Laboratory became so successful that it attracted leading mobile robotics researchers from around the world such as Hani Hagras (2001),  Housheng Hu (1998), Owen Holland (2001) and Ulrich Nehmzow (2001) who considerably boosted the capability of the Robotics research at Essex.

In the late 90’s Professor Mike O’Mohoney and Professor Vic Callaghan, together with the then Head of department Paul Scott, submitted a bid to SRIF-1 for funding a new research building, the current “Network Centre”. In this building they included a proposal for a new purpose-built robot facility, the robot arena, plus another related facility call the iSpace (a high tech home). In the original plans for robotic facilities, Professor Callaghan proposed that the “Network Building” should include a Robot Arena (high enough for model flying robots to operate), a ground level robot workshop (to maintain outdoor robots, such as robotic tractors, cars etc) and a roof facility to allow solar power robots to operate in a life long mode). Later with SRIF 3 funding various advanced facilities were added such as a Powered Floor (proposed by Ulrich Nehmzow) and a 3D motion/behaviour tracking system, together with a fleet of experimental robot platforms.  During the summer of 2007 the Brooker Lab, under the stewardship of Professor Ian Henning the Brooker Lab widened its focus to general embedded systems with robotics being focus wholly on the Robot Arena (finally, being re-purposed as a general computing lab in summer 2018, under the leadership of Professor Anthony Vickers).  During this period Professor Owen Holland retired (2009) and in 2008 Professor Ulrich Nehmzow  moved to take up a Chair at the University of Ulster University of Ulster (very sadly, in 2010, Professor Ulrich Nehmzow died of cancer not long after taking up this position). Currently, robotics research is directed by Professor Housheng Hu a highly esteemed robotics research leader who has introduced many innovative lines of research, such as robotic fish.

The are also a number of videos showing various milestones in the early history of robots at Essex. For an insight into the current robotics research at Essex University (including the robotic fish), look at Professor Hu’s website.

Footnote: Since writing the above,

11th September 2011