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Building robots for a better future

Varun Kumar (MSc Robotics & Autonomous Systems 2020) works for the UK Atomic Energy Authority to develop robotics for nuclear fusion.

Varun Kumar
Varun Kumar (MSc Robotics & Autonomous Systems 2020)

I studied Robotics and Autonomous Systems MSc at Bath thanks to the GREAT Scholarship from the British Council. It meant that I could experience studying in the UK, which is what I’ve always wanted. Coming from India, it was a big culture shock – the pace of life is calmer here and I’m still getting used to the weather a year later! But living abroad has not only helped me gain the much-needed educational exposure, it also helped me become more independent.

The course was a good mix between laboratory work, coding, and machine learning. In one project we worked in teams to coordinate a sequence of robotic arms in transferring a metal rod from one robot to another through a Perspex glass with just five centimetres of clearance. We hypothesised a scenario where this was a nuclear holocaust environment to replace fuel rods and only robots could carry out this crucial task.

Developing sustainable energy

My work on this project greatly impressed interviewers and I was offered the role of Graduate Mechatronics Engineer at RACE at the UK Atomic Energy Authority. At RACE, we are focusing on delivering robotic solutions for remote handling in challenging environments, like a nuclear fusion reactor (for example, JET where scientists are turning the process that powers the Sun into carbon-free electricity).

We need robots to carry out the regular testing and maintenance inside the reactor because it’s too dangerous for humans to enter. Currently, I’m working on what’s called ‘digital twin technology’ – a virtual replica of the physical robot. My role involves writing scripts to integrate the virtual and real-world robots and sometimes I get the opportunity to get hands-on with hardware development as well.

Track your progress

Working in robotics requires a lot of hard work, passion, and resilience because you don’t get results from the word ‘go’. From my experience so far, I have learnt to fail quickly and learn from my mistakes even quicker. It is always encouraging when you’re a part of a team that constantly supports your learning curve.

To new and current robotics students, I would recommend documenting your successes and your failures so you can track your progress. Having a constant development log and using version control for your coding projects is highly advisable. You might have tinkered for 100 steps to make something work, and next time you might not remember what you did, so it's very important to get into the habit of documenting as you go.

Helping to build a better future

I found out about the UK Atomic Energy Authority through the Careers Fair at the University. I didn’t know if they would sponsor my work visa, but my unique skillset and passion for robotics made me an ideal candidate for the graduate scheme.

Aiming for the stars, if we manage to crack nuclear fusion and make the technology commercial, it will be a huge development for humanity. I am determined to use my academic and professional experience in robotics to work towards solving issues related to climate change.

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