Oxford tech company Createc and the Oxford Robotics Institute have designed a ground-breaking autonomous robot to work in hazardous environments

Words: Oxford Trust

Oxford tech company Createc and the Oxford Robotics Institute have designed a ground-breaking autonomous robot to work in hazardous environments

A team of eight from the Oxford tech company, Createc, and the Oxford Robotic Institute have created an autonomous robotic solution for hazardous environments that removes the need for people to work in dangerous environments, such as nuclear disaster zones.

Based in the Oxford Centre for Innovation, Createc has been developing smart radiation detection and 3D gamma radiation mapping technology over the last few years. Their ‘N-Visage®’ sensor has been deployed worldwide, including at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant in Japan after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

The Oxford Robotics Institute (ORI) has developed a state-of-the art, autonomous navigation system called ‘VILENS’ or Visual Inertial Legged Navigation System. The system allows robots to navigate hazardous sites and collate data remotely.

Combined for the first time, the N-Visage®-VILENS system can be installed on all types of robot to solve dangerous work-place challenges and because it processes the data in real time can analyse the situation better than humans.

The advantage of the combined system is that it can be attached to any robot suitable for the particular site under exploration – from a 4-wheel drive to a legged robot – and avoids the need for a dedicated robotics development project for each new situation, saving time and cost.

This capability will be invaluable both in decommissioning nuclear sites, where better data leads to cheaper, quicker projects, and in accident response, where rapidly gathering good information is crucial to effective accident management.

Createc’s radiation sensor N-Visage® acts as a “radiation expert” on site by creating a real-time 3D activity map with uncertainty estimates so that dangerous substances or situations can be easily assessed. For instance, the sensor can classify the type of nuclear waste on particular site so that a decision can be made about disposal. And ORI’s autonomous exploration software adds capability to any robot using the Robot Operating System (ROS). The combined system can be fitted and set to work in a matter of hours.

Matt Mellor, Chief Executive, Createc said: “The purpose of our smart radiation sensor is that it embodies not only the ability to measure radiation at a known location, but also to automatically interpret that data in the light of a survey objective to demonstrate a proposed next action for the robot to implement.”

“Our aim is to develop a smart sensor that not only has the ability to sense radiation, but also comprises all of the physics knowledge, algorithms and computing power to understand the meaning of the data and advise other system components on how to react to the data.”

“Createc and ORI’s technology will satisfy an emerging need for a robotics module which enables companies to rapidly develop and field robotics systems based on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, confident in their ability to operate in a nuclear environment.”

“We are widely recognised in the nuclear industry for success in innovation and problem solving. Some of our technologies have been deployed around the world to provide accurate, and readily-available, radiological information.”

Dr. Maurice Fallon, Oxford Robotics Institute says: “Our VILENS autonomous navigation technology is a world class tool for robotics. Designed by our team, the local mapping system works in 3D and can operate in all kinds of problematic situations, including completely dark conditions.”

Createc has already demonstrated its credibility for developing and implementing N-Visage® which has been commercially deployed at Sellafield in the UK, and extensively at the Fukushima Daiichi site in Japan. They are working on other sensors which will enable the robots to operate and problem-solve in other dangerous situations, such as gas leaks.

The VILENS was designed by David Wisth, Marco Camurri and Maurice Fallon at the Oxford Robotics Institute. It is a factor-graph based odometry algorithm that fuses multiple sources of measurement. The Institute is well known for running the UK’s first autonomous vehicle on public roads in 2014

Started in 2010, Createc is based in the Lake District and the Oxford Centre for Innovation. The Centre is owned by local charity The Oxford Trust, set up by Oxford’s first entrepreneurs, Sir Martin and Lady Audrey Wood. The Trust has been supporting start-ups and spinouts for the last 35 years through its two innovation centres, the Oxford Centre for Innovation in central Oxford and its sister site, the Wood Centre for Innovation in Oxford’s Health and Life Sciences District in Headington.

Createc is the sole UK distributor for Boston Robotics.

The Oxford Robotics Institute (ORI) is an interdisciplinary division within the University of Oxford’s Department of Engineering Science.


Matt Mellor, CEO, Createc

Matt Mellor, Managing Director

Matt Mellor started his career as an academic working in research and development at Oxford University where his specialist field was in computer vision and robotics with medical application. But in writing papers, which he says were mainly “read by other academics so they could cite it in their research”, Matt could see there was a vital component missing.

“To turn that research into a product I learned that you have got to make that happen yourself to ensure others recognise the value of it,” said Matt. “That started me on an odyssey to learn about the full process of technological development. That means not just learning about technology, but also about business, people, finance – all the parts you need to make something happen which is going to make a positive change in the world.”

With that in mind, Matt moved to Cumbria and joined REACT Engineering. “REACT put the emphasis on entrepreneurship and I joined the company to apply what I had learned in nuclear medicine to nuclear engineering.” In particular, Matt was able to apply his knowledge in medical imaging to provide smart, technological solutions to the nuclear clean-up industry.

In 2007, Matt was the technical lead in setting up REACT’s own spin-out – aerial surveying company, Hi-Def, which gave him valuable experience of the process involved in setting up a spin-out business. Hi-Def went on to be a sustainable, successful business in its own right and in 2016 became part of the BioConsult SH group. Meanwhile, Matt set up Createc in June 2010, and as CEO has led the company to achieve impressive growth ever since.

Createc started out with just three members of staff – Matt, Alan Shippen and Pete Rodgers. The company’s mission was to create a profitable business out of computer vision and robotics research and development, demonstrating the value such a service adds to industry. Building on technological expertise in the nuclear sector learned from REACT Engineering, Createc developed its N-Visage® technology which went on to be used in the clean-up following the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan.

Closer to home, Createc used its intellectual property in computer vision to build a business opportunity and set up spin-out company, Sportlight. Earlier this year, it launched a second spin-out from its robotics expertise creating Createc Robotics.

Looking ahead, as society and industry move out of a Covid-19 lockdown, Matt sees robotics playing an ever more important role – but warns those who think it will be an overnight change, to be more patient. “Society has always overestimated what technological development will take place over a two to five-year period. But it has always underestimated what development will take place over 20 years,” said Matt.

“Technological development is an accumulation of small goals which build on top of each other. It creeps forward so that over a 20-year period people then look back and are amazed at how much the world has changed. In 20 years’ time we are going to have a lot more robots, and we will have improved collaboration between human and machine. In some areas that might involve helping to remove people from having to carry out tasks in hazardous environments. In other areas it might be giving people more senses and more capabilities.”

Createc applies its thinking and technologies to any problem to find a solution, and takes a flexible approach when doing so. This means that it can adapt for a range of industries and a range of situations. “We look at the way we can do something, not where we can do it,” said Matt. It’s an approach which has seen its solutions applied in a range of industries and settings, including nuclear and defence, rail and security. Among future growth areas for Createc are heavy engineering, major industrial and general construction.

Createc has received two Queen’s Awards in recent years, one for International Trade and one for Innovation, recognising the company’s success in developing technology. The company is also proud to have won awards for innovation from The Institution for Engineering and Technology (IET), The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

Createc’s strategy as it moves beyond its 10-year anniversary is to concentrate on research and development to launch a series of further spin-out companies. Two things Matt is keen to influence in the wider economy to help support the company’s ambitions are funding and leadership. “We need to make sure that the UK is more start-up friendly. And we need more entrepreneurs who want to come and run these businesses,” said Matt. “To me an entrepreneur takes complete ownership and picks their way forward and proceeds confidently in the face of doubt.”

“We have had a sustained growth rate of 40 per cent, and we are focused on continuing to grow at this rate. In the first ten years we have grown from a company with three people turning over £180,000 to 30 people turning over £3.5m. To sustain that level of growth by the end of the next ten years we would have 300 people turning over more than £60m.”

Matt has a clear vision of how the company will keep driving forward, and his motivation and appetite to lead the company to further success is clear. “My motivation comes from bringing something completely new to life which results in the world being a better place,” he said. “Seeing all the pieces come together and creating this thing which creates an economic benefit and also has a positive impact on the world is really satisfying.”