The “Festival of Robotics” conjured up images of dancing androids and cyborgs, or at least one of these Boston Dynamics monsters that looks like a fleshless terminator but moves like a gymnast. It took place on a wet day at BT’s Adastral Park R&D facility, and it did indeed feature one of Boston Dynamics’ robot dogs doing some bio-robot taming before darting off at Pitbull speed, presumably on a killing mission. But there wasn’t much festival atmosphere.
The weather didn’t help. “The rain had an overwhelming effect on our ability to have a beer tent and an open summer garden, but we will dance and other exciting things like robot wars,” a company spokesperson said in a mid-morning presentation. The robots may have gone out dancing and fighting in the evening, long after the reporters had left. It looked like a science fair on a rather rundown 1970s-style college campus.
This is not to say it was disappointing. Opened by the late Queen in 1975, Adastral Park sprawls across 100 acres of land in Suffolk, formerly used by the Royal Air Force. It may look more like a throwback to Britain’s original discontent class than something out of Silicon Valley today, but it’s an unusually large and impressive R&D facility for a company in the telecoms space. More than 150 BT Partners and nearly 4,000 people work there, according to official literature. The Chinese company Huawei logo was seen floating above one building.
BT’s intrusion is likely to confuse the average customer. Bots, in particular, seem a long way from selling telephone and broadband services, fixed or mobile, and BT doesn’t want to produce its next robot dog. But she’s trying to figure out her role in a high-tech world of autonomous machines and 5G-powered drones, which figured prominently on the day of the festival. In January, it hired Mark Overton of Sierra Wireless, a maker of equipment for the “internet of things,” to lead a new business unit called Division X. The goal is in part to commercialize some of the technology on display at Adastral Park.
Do Androids dream of picking fruits?
It’s easier said than done. One problem for any company in this field is size. Simply put, many robots seem out of place to have mass-market appeal. Robots picking strawberries in a single barn could be a solution to the agricultural labor shortage in the wake of Brexit and lockdown, but – technological challenges aside – they are unlikely to be a source of money for BT.
Drones stand a better chance. With the 5G network, drones can be programmed to fly long distances without much supervision, deliver vaccines to hospitals or relay snapshots of faulty infrastructure to an engineer. Unmanned courier service for everyday objects seems less daunting than most visions of self-driving vehicles.
But the obstacles are formidable. For one thing, the drone market is currently dominated by DJI Technology, a Chinese company that was recently added to a US blacklist over its alleged ties to the Chinese military. At the Adastral Park festival, there was palpable frustration about DJI’s tight control over the software used in its drones. To get around this problem and experiment, the researchers have apparently been reverse-engineering the technology. None of this sounds ideal from a business perspective.
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