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UK blocks China from licensing Manchester Uni's robot vision tech

National Security and Investment Act used to prevent export felt to have nasty defense implications

The Government of the United Kingdom has used a national security law to block the licensing of locally-developed technology to a foreign entity, preventing a deal that would have provided a Chinese company with robot vision tech.

The intellectual property, known as SCAMP-5 and SCAMP-7, was developed by the University of Manchester. As described in a funding proposal, the tech aims "to tightly integrate novel sensing and processing hardware, together with vision, navigation and control algorithms, to enable the next generation of autonomous robots."

Chinese company Beijing Infinite Vision Technology, which bills itself as a cutting-edge 3D rendering technology company that specializes in architectural visualization, sought a license for the SCAMPs.

It won't get it, because on Wednesday the UK's business minister Kwasi Kwarteng nixed the deal.

The National Security and Investment (NSI) Act 2021 came into force in January 2022 and gives the UK government the ability to block or limit corporate transactions on grounds of national security.

The law was also used to launch investigations into Chinese company Nexperia's takeover of UK microchip plant Newport Wafer Fab, and French telco tycoon Patrick Drahi's ownership of shares in BT.

According to the government's final order [PDF], the deal was sunk because "there is potential that the technology could be used to build defence or technological capabilities which may present national security risk to the United Kingdom."

The Manchester Uni boffins behind the tech say it uses a chip programmed to pre-process images in order to pass only important information upstream for vision tracking algorithms. It also measures "time of flight" data in each pixel, allowing the feature distance to be combined with image plane data, thus speeding up real-time estimation and mapping.

Furthermore, it allows bidirectional flow of information from sensor to motor control and back again. Traditionally, information has passed only in one direction – from sensor to motor.

"A key component of the project will therefore be the management and control of information across all three layers: sensing, visual perception and control. Information share will occur at multiple rates and may either be scheduled or requested. Shared information and distributed computation will provide a breakthrough in control capabilities for highly agile robotic systems," wrote the authors.

The developers reckon any application currently limited by tracking capabilities would benefit and there would be a "step change" in vison-based control of UAVs – with benefits ranging from medical robotics to industrial production. Suggested potential uses include toys and consumer goods, but also both civilian and military applications, particularly in reconnaissance or search and rescue efforts.

Manchester University reportedly said it would abide by the government's decision, and although it had followed "thorough internal process in place to look at proposed international agreements" it had voluntarily referred the agreement to the UK government. ®

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