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Built For Robots: The University of York’s Institute for Safe Autonomy

How do you safely integrate robots into a society of driverless cars, robotic arms, drones and more? That’s the role of the groundbreaking Institute for Safe Autonomy (ISA), and, as project manager, Walker Sime has been helping to ensure that the finished facility is as accessible for robots as it is for humans.

Walker Sime has been part of the University of York’s ISA project since its earliest briefing stage, yet seldom has briefing been quite so complex, and required so much scientific interpretation.

“The university was looking to develop a quantum lab at the facility,” says Walker Sime’s Conal Spellacy, senior project manager (PM) and employer’s agent, and the person responsible for shepherding the project to completion. “That’s not something that’s part of your typical project brief, so we needed to speak with stakeholders within the appropriate faculties who could dissect that for us and interpret the requirements in a practical, relatable way. In every part of this building, there’s been a new challenge that we’ve had to distil into types of sockets, types of lighting, floor type and so on.”

Created for robots

Since starting on the project in 2019 and over the following Covid-affected 18 months, Conal faced that same challenge countless times.  “You’ve got the double height open test space for drone flying, including a viewing platform with angled glazing to give users a full view of the space,” he explains.

“There’s a semi-submerged tank that had to be installed as the ground floor was being cast. That’s for testing autonomous shipping, submersibles and underwater comms. The university wanted its quantum lab to be surrounded by an electromagnetic curtain that would be impenetrable to the lasers within.

“We needed a clamshell dome on the roof for a telescope, the support for which required a steel pier and reinforced concrete pad. The roof also needed an anchor point for a heli-kite — essentially a blimp used for collecting weather data.”

Even the areas that connect the building’s core features needed to be accessible by the robots which walk and roll around the facility, which meant that the interface for every door and lift needed reimagining.

“All of it presented new challenges in terms of how the building would operate and what it would look like,” adds Conal.

Image courtesy of University of York

Designed for people

As important as its robot inhabitants are, this was a project that also placed human users at its core. “The ISA combines the skills of lots of different faculties, because law and ethics will be just as vital to the future of autonomous robots as physics, engineering, data and robotics,” says Conal. “The facility needed to be suitable for people from all those faculties. It also needed to work for the differently abled.

“One of our earliest challenges was capturing all those stakeholder requirements and ensuring that the building delivered for everyone. Just managing the flow of information and ensuring that the appropriate people were made aware of changes or were able to comment on or sign-off plans was a job in itself.”

“An ecosystem of collaboration”

Now complete, the ISA is a huge source of satisfaction for Conal. “Seeing the end users (human and AI) getting use out of it. Reading the reactions of people seeing it for the first time. And seeing the university start to enjoy the full benefits from it — that feels good.”

Image courtesy of University of York

Professor Miles Elsden is Director of the Institute for Safe Autonomy: “Walker Sime has been pivotal in creating a purpose-built living lab for the University of York. It is an ecosystem of interdisciplinary collaboration that is home to over 100 independent experts. Thanks to all those who have played a part in its development, this facility will help to ensure a safety-critical approach to the design, development and deployment of autonomous systems.”

Sights on sci-tech

The University of York ISA is just the latest in a growing portfolio of sci-tech, life sciences and advanced materials projects for which Walker Sime has been quantity surveyor, project manager and/or employer’s agent.

“From supporting Bruntwood’s numerous sci-tech campus sites to the Glass Futures facility at St Helens and even the Eureka! Science + Discovery attraction in Birkenhead, we are cultivating an impressive track record in advanced buildings for science and technology,” says Andrew McNaghten, Walker Sime’s Director of Project Management (Leeds). “With many more institutions planning similar developments, we’d like to think our project successes are powerful showcases for the skills and knowledge of the Walker Sime team.”

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