Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: Sandpit: trustworthiness of autonomous robotic systems for national security and defence

Apply to attend a five-day interactive sandpit to develop novel projects on trustworthiness of autonomous robotic systems for national security and defence.

You must be based at a UK research organisation eligible for EPSRC funding.

You must complete an expression of interest to apply for the sandpit.

Attendance for the full five days will be mandatory for those selected to attend. Part of the sandpit may be conducted virtually. Attendance at the sandpit does not guarantee UKRI funding.

We expect to fund up to £3 million for all research projects from this sandpit.

Who can apply

Standard EPSRC eligibility rules apply. Research grants are open to:

  • UK higher education institutions
  • research council institutes
  • UKRI-approved independent research organisations.

Please read the guidance on institutional eligibility.

You can apply if you are resident in the UK and meet at least one of the criteria below:

  • are employed at the submitting research organisation at lecturer level or equivalent
  • hold a fixed-term contract that extends beyond the duration of the proposed project, and the host research organisation is prepared to give you all the support normal for a permanent employee
  • hold an EPSRC, Royal Society or Royal Academy of Engineering fellowship aimed at later career stages
  • hold fellowships under other schemes (please contact EPSRC to check eligibility, which is considered on a case-by-case basis).

Holders of postdoctoral level fellowships are not eligible to apply for an EPSRC grant.

Submissions to this funding opportunity will count towards the EPSRC repeatedly unsuccessful applicants policy.

Please note that businesses are not eligible to apply for funding through this scheme. For information on the eligibility of organisations and individuals to receive EPSRC funding, read the EPSRC guidance for applicants.

What we're looking for

Background

Autonomous robotic systems are physical platforms with motors and sensors enabling them to move through and perceive the environment around them. On-board and cloud computing processes make use of sensor information to apply autonomous control algorithms to navigate, make decisions and undertake actions in the real world.

It is of critical importance that the actions of autonomous robotic systems are predictable, remain under control and any rogue systems (or subsystems) detected and effectively managed immediately.

A detailed risk assessment is required to understand and manage the risks of autonomous robots and thereby provide trust in safe and reliable operation.

Currently, this risk assessment may involve training the product within a computer-simulated environment. However, there is always a significant gulf between the simulated and true environment. For example, unexpected events may occur in the real world, such as human or animal activity disturbing a system.

In addition, real-world autonomous robotic systems are vulnerable to cybersecurity threats, which further complicate the creation of trustworthy autonomous robots by requiring consideration of the deliberate and malicious compromise of systems.

Sandpit

EPSRC, in collaboration with National Security Technology and Innovation Exchange (NSTIx) and UK government partners, are inviting applications to attend a joint sandpit in the area of trustworthiness of autonomous robotic systems for national security and defence.

The aim of this sandpit is to generate new, innovative and transformative approaches to the creation and operation of trustworthy autonomous robotic systems with specific focus to addressing the needs and challenges within defence and national security.

The sandpit will be an intensive, interactive, inclusive and free-thinking environment, where a diverse group of participants from a range of disciplines and backgrounds will work together for five days. The aim will be to immerse participants in collaborative thinking processes and ideas sharing in order to construct innovative approaches.

It will be led by a director, who will be supported by a team of mentors. Professor Robert Richardson (University of Leeds) will be the director for this sandpit.

The director, mentors and a small number of stakeholders will attend the sandpit but will not be eligible to receive research funding. Instead, their role will be to assist participants in defining and exploring challenges in this area.

The process can be broken down into several stages:

  • defining the scope of the challenges
  • evolving common languages and terminologies amongst people from a diverse range of backgrounds and disciplines
  • sharing understandings of the challenges, and the expertise brought by the participants to the sandpit, and perspectives from relevant stakeholders
  • taking part in sessions focused on the challenges, using creative thinking techniques
  • capturing the outputs in the form of highly innovative research projects
  • a funding decision on those projects at the sandpit using ‘real-time’ peer review.

Participants should be able to apply their knowledge, skills and experience across disciplines to develop innovative research arising from different perspectives, with the potential to deliver new ideas focused on trustworthiness of autonomous robotic systems.

As the sandpit progresses, participants will build up thoughts on how the identified ‘challenges’ may be addressed and develop their innovative ideas and activities into research projects.

Projects should contain genuinely novel and speculative research. The director and mentors will act as independent reviewers, making a funding recommendation on the projects emerging from the process through a ‘real-time’ peer review process.

Scope

The sandpit will include inputs from a variety of sources, bringing together a wide variety of disciplines and innovators to address the research challenges associated with understanding and developing trustworthiness of autonomous robotic systems.

The sandpit will address key concerns, such as those given below, in relation to specific operational contexts:

  • how can we minimise the gap between how a robotic or autonomous system (especially its artificial intelligence systems) behaves in a simulated environment and in a real-world operational context
  • how can we ensure robust cybersecurity against malicious attempts to hijack, neutralise or otherwise tamper with a robotic or autonomous system’s functions
  • how can we quantify the risk or confidence deficit that remains after minimising (but never eradicating) the simulation-reality ‘gap’ and the cybersecurity issues?

Through the sandpit, participants will build up thoughts on how these challenges may be addressed and develop their innovative ideas and activities into research projects.

The aim of this sandpit is to generate research proposals that:

  • take into account the needs of customers and stakeholders and consider co-design with end-users
  • form new collaborations between researchers, innovators and users in diverse research areas
  • create new and transformative research ideas in trustworthiness of autonomous robotic systems
  • allow researchers to pitch projects for seed funding to test and de-risk novel ideas
  • address the key research challenges that are identified
  • cultivate a common language between disciplines.

Achieving the sandpit aims will require participants from an appropriate mix of diverse backgrounds and relevant disciplines. Researchers from a diverse range of disciplines are therefore encouraged to apply to attend this sandpit.

We are not defining the disciplines that should be represented but asking potential participants to indicate how their expertise can address the challenge of trustworthiness in autonomous robotic systems in the broadest sense.

Applicants need not have worked on the problem before. However, emphasis will be placed on working across disciplines to foster new collaborations and bring new thinking to the problem.

Funding available

It is expected that up to £3 million of funding will be made available to fund research projects arising from this sandpit.

We aim to adhere to the key dates as published, however we reserve the right to make modifications in the event of exceptional unforeseen circumstances.

How to apply

Applying to participate in the sandpit

Applying to participate in the sandpit will be done by completing an expression of interest online survey.

Those that pass the initial sandpit selection will be asked to provide basic information directly to NSTIx in order for mandatory security checks to be completed.

Your answers to the expression of interest questions will be used to assess your application and convince a panel that you have the suitable skills and attitude to participate in this sandpit. No further documentation will be accepted.

The expression of interest will indicate participant availability for these dates and their commitment to attend if shortlisted. Please be advised attendance for the full five days is mandatory, although part of this may be conducted virtually.

Information about the venue and the exact format of the sandpit will be provided to the successful participants. Accommodation will be provided, however participants must make their own travel arrangements.

The deadline for expressions of interest is 16:00 on 18 April 2022. Please note that late submissions will not be considered. EPSRC will confirm selected participants and the sandpit schedule by the end of April 2022. Those selected to attend will receive further briefing before the event.

Selected applicants will be required to inform their university research office, in advance of the event, that they are going to attend the sandpit. If they are part of a successful project, their institution will be required to fund 20% of the full economic project costs (as standard).

How we will assess your application

Assessing applications to attend

Applications to attend the sandpit will be assessed by a selection panel consisting of the sandpit director and mentors.

The criteria for participant selection are based on the participant responses to the expression of interest survey.

As a sandpit is predicated on an ethos of innovative collaborative working, you must demonstrate both enthusiasm and appropriate personal attributes for cross-disciplinary collaborative research.

You should not feel limited by conventional perceptions of research performed in this field. The sandpit approach is about bringing people together who would not normally interact.

The participant selection will be based on the following assessment criteria:

  • suitability and fit to the sandpit process and ability to develop new, adventurous and highly original research ideas
  • the potential to contribute to research at the interface between disciplines
  • the ability to explain research to non-experts
  • the ability to work in a team.

Within the pool of applicants selected based on these assessment criteria, the panel will look to ensure a mix of discipline, experience and background.

It is therefore important to give evidence of your fulfilment of these criteria in your application. Please ensure you fully complete the expression of interest survey, as this is the only information on which potential sandpit attendees will be selected.

In the event of this funding opportunity being substantially oversubscribed as to be unmanageable, EPSRC reserves the right to modify the assessment process.

Because of the large number of applications expected, we will not be able to give individual feedback to unsuccessful applicants.

If you have applied to or attended a sandpit previously, you are not barred from applying or attending again.

Post-sandpit proposal assessment

Following the sandpit, investigators involved in those projects recommended for funding will be invited to write a full project proposal document detailing their intended activities as identified at the sandpit.

The deadline for submission of full proposals is expected to be July 2022.

Proposals will be submitted via the Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) system. Further guidance on this part of the process will be available at the sandpit event.

The primary criteria used throughout the process of developing and assessing the final proposals will be how well the proposals address the vision of the sandpit. The final proposals will be subject to standard EPSRC assessment criteria (quality, importance, applicants and partnerships, and resources and management).

We seek to support proposals that show:

  • novel, highly multidisciplinary research projects, clearly reflecting the distinctive opportunity for creating such projects that the sandpit provides
  • clear evidence that the team has the capability to deliver their project as a high-quality multidisciplinary activity, provided both through the presentation and their activity during the sandpit
  • clear relevance to and the potential to make a distinctive and novel contribution to addressing the research challenges in this area.

It is planned that participants involved in projects identified for funding will be informed within two weeks of the sandpit. Funding will be conditional on receipt of a full proposal.

Final funding decisions will be made in autumn 2022.

Any collaborative project funded through this programme must have a signed collaborative agreement between the partners before the start of any grant.

We attach great importance to the dissemination of research findings and the publishing of information about the research they support in the public domain. However, all dissemination and publication must be carried out in the manner agreed in the project’s collaboration agreement.

Read EPSRC requirements on collaboration agreements.

Please note that attendance at the sandpit does not guarantee UKRI funding.

Contact details

Get help with developing your proposal

For help and advice on costings and writing your proposal, please contact your research office in the first instance, allowing sufficient time for your organisation’s submission process.

Ask about this funding opportunity

Email: ns-sandpit@epsrc.ukri.org

Additional info

NSTIx

NSTIx is a government-led science, technology and innovation (ST&I) partnership that enables coherent and agile delivery of innovative national security outcomes through a coordinated and systematic approach to research and capability development.

NSTIx engages with UK government organisations that require national security ST&I to identify and communicate cross-cutting areas for collaboration and co-creation. NSTIx also promotes engagement with providers and end users of ST&I, including with industry and academia, to enable better outcomes for all parties.

Find out more about NSTIx.

Responsible innovation

You are expected to work within the EPSRC framework for responsible innovation.

International collaboration is not allowed under this funding opportunity.

Equality, diversity and inclusion

The long-term strength of the UK research base depends on harnessing all the available talent. UKRI expects that equality and diversity is embedded at all levels and in all aspects of research practice and funding policy.

We welcome applications from academics who job share, have a part-time contract or need flexible working arrangements. We are committed to a policy of equal opportunities for our applicants for funding and encourage applications from those from under-represented groups.

We will collect participant demographics through the participant expression of interest survey. This data will only be used for monitoring and evaluation purposes. The data will not be shared with any third party and will not be used for the participant selection.

Find out more about equality, diversity and inclusion at EPSRC.

Supporting documents

Expression of interest survey

Equality impact assessment (PDF, 202KB)

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