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Robotics: SPARC, new world-class initative

On June 3rd, the European Commission, along with 180 companies and research organization brought together under the umbrella of EuRobotics ABSL, launched the world’s largest research and innovation programme in robotics.

The programme, called SPARC, is expected to push Europe at the forefront of the global market for robotics, by out-spending global rivals like the United States, South Korea and Japan. The scheme is expected to result in the creation of over 240 000 jobs in Europe by 2020.

SPARC will fund research and innovation projects in robotics open for all European companies and research institutions (no preferential treatment will be given to EuRobitics member organizations). Funding will be channeled through Horizon 2020, the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, with the EU Commission making up to 700 million euro available for activities in the field of robotics for 2014-2020. In addition, European industrial and research partners (EuRobotics) have committed themselves to complement the EU Commission efforts by investing a 2,1 billion euro over the next seven year, thereby leveraging the impact of EU funding. The aim of the SPARC programme is to increase synergies between public and private funding in robotics, with the EU Commission and and EUrobotics ABSL working closely to select projects for funding under Horizon 2020 (ICT-23-2014 and ICT-24-2015).

The rationale for leveraging investment in robotics at European level

The launch of the SPARC programme build on a growing consensus on the benefits robots can bring to Europe. Overall, the economic case for enhancing the industrial uptake of robots and strengthening Europe’s position in the field of robotics is threefold:

Firstly, the uptake of robots has a positive impact on the competitiveness of industries and services, thereby enabling companies to continue manufacturing in European instead of relocating their activities in cheap-labor countries. The number of economic sectors for which the development of robots can boost productivity is large: it includes, among other, the sector of transports, agriculture, or the audiovisual industry. Moreover, robots tend to spur consumption by allowing for the creation of new products and services, thereby further helping Europe to get back on the growth track.

Secondly, robotics represent a huge potential for the development of the Europe’s industrial basis,  with the global robot market growing at a rate of 8% per year and set to achieve annual sales of between €50bn and €62bn by 2020. In this respect, the SPARC initiative is expected to increase Europe’s share of the global robot market to 42% by 2020, up from 32% in 2014. The current period is a turning point for robotics technologies, and Europe could not miss the opportunity to take the lead in the global race to developing and selling robots.

Last but not least, the potential of robotics goes far beyond factory and sheer economic benefits: robots are instrumental in tackling pressing societal challenges, from ageing populations to sustainable mobility to food security. Applications for robot-based automation solutions include surgery, home care for the elderly and disabled people, or smarter and safer vehicles. Robots also serve environmental and security purposes, with drones being used to monitor wildlife, waste-collecting robots soon to patrol our streets, and UAV contributing to rescue and research operations.

In addition to these economic-based arguments, the launch of the SPARC programme builds on the need to decompartmentalize national programmes on robotics and prevent research overlaps between European research organisations and companies. Pooling resources intended for research on robotics at European level will allow for research initiatives to reach a critical mass, thereby enabling the creation of ambitious applications, services and processes that could not be financed should research funding efforts remain fragmented along national lines.

Will robots make the labor force redundant?

In spite of the above-mentioned arguments, the launch of the SPARC programme came amid skepticism, with some people fearing that robots will destroy jobs by automating tasks that are usually performed by humans.

According to EU Commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes, 70% of European still think that robots steal people’s jobs. With 25 million European currently unemployed, this a relevant cause for concern.

Yet, according to a paper from consultancy Metra Martechas entitled “Positive Impact of Industrial Robots on Employment” ) the number of jobs being made redundant by the development of robots will be more than offset by the rise in competitiveness and productivity entailed by the industrial uptake of robotics. Building on the paper findings, Commissioner Neelie Kroes debunks the Malthusian myth that robots generate unemployment, asserting that “each industrial robot actually supports 3.6 jobs [and] that robots will directly and indirectly create 2 million jobs over the next 8 years”.

Funding opportunities: robotics across the various H2020 strand and pillars

There are two calls for proposals related to SPARC under Horizon 2020. Both are run under the “Information and Communication Technologies” sub-strand of the “LEIT – Leadership in Enabling and Industrial Technologies” strand of the “Industrial Leadershsip” pillar of the Horizon 2020 programme (ICT-23-2014, sub-call of H2020-ICT-2014-1, and ICT-24-2015, sub-call of H2020-ICT-2015-1). Note that the deadline for submitting proposals under ICT-23-2014 has passed, while the ICT-24-2015 call will be published in October.

SPARC-related calls for proposals are intended for core robotics projects, with a 700 million euro EU budget for 2014-2020. In addition, several non-SPARC-related funding opportunities of relevance to robotics organization appear in other strands and priorities of the Horizon 2020 programme, namely:

* Other calls within the ICT sub-strand of LEIT strand of the Industrial Leadership priority

* Calls within the “Nanotechnologies, Advanced Materials, Biotechnology, Advanced Manufacturing & Processing” sub-strand of LEIT (Industrial Leadership priority)

* Calls for space-related robotics (“LEIT SPACE” sub-strand of the LEIT strand of the “Industrial Leadership” priority)

* Calls for proposals within the “Future and Emerging Technologies” strand of the “Excellent Science” priority (for cognition-related and neuro-robotics projects)

* Calls issued along the following strands of the “Societal Challenges” priority:

1 – “Health, demographic change and wellbeing” for projects on assistive living

2 – “Food security, sustainable agriculture and forestry, marine and maritime and inland water research and the bioeconomy” for projects on marine robotics

3 – “Secure, clean and efficient energy” for projects on robotized tools for constructions

4 – “Smart, green and integrated transports” for projects on autonomous vehicles

Last but not least, several projects within the 7th Framework Programme for Research and Development (2007-2013) regularly issue call for additional participants to join  activities on robotics, with the example of EUROC, which is running a call for industry-related robotic challenges.


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