European development of a cyberhand that feels, and the world's first shape-shifting robot are just some of the projects that could be at risk if the EU fails to keep up research spending in the years ahead, officials warned Friday.
Viviane Reding, EU commissioner in charge of information society and media issues, called on industry and governments to act fast to ensure Europe does not lose its edge in robotics technology.
"The industry have a role in explaining to governments the importance of adequate resources for research and innovation. The time to act is now," she told business leaders at the launch of a new robotics Web site that aims to bring European business and researchers together.
The EU head office is keen to boost spending on research and development in robotics so not to lose market share to Japan, the United States and Korea.
The European Commission is pushing for billions of dollars in extra funding to research programs in EU budget talks.
"The commission has proposed a stronger financial basis for investing in research. However, some member states seem reluctant," Reding said.
But the industry itself also needs to be convinced of investing in robotics — a market scientists say will increase six-fold in the next 20 years, she said.
Each year, the commission and EU nations combined spend $100 million on robotics research. Japan and Korea spend about the same, while the United States spends up to $500 million per year, according to EU officials.
In Europe, research in innovative robotics, like the cyberhand project run by the University of Sant' Anna in Italy, show that Europe has something to offer, officials said.
The European robotics industry has a 35 percent global share of factory robots used to make things like cars or refrigerators.
But that share is dropping, officials warn.
"We are losing market in robotics to Japan" said Ulf Dahlsten, who is in charge of the commission's emerging technology unit.
Dahlsten, who was presenting projects being researched across the 25-nation bloc, said industry and research in Japan was better at making prototypes into finished products to be sold in the shops.
"The truth is that robotics research (in Europe), so far, has basically been academic research," Dahlsten said.
He explained investing in robotics research would modernize European industry and prepare them for new markets and thus "keeping industry in Europe."
Dahlsten listed several projects that showed promise, but needed industry backing to be realized.
One company, the Danish toy maker Lego Group famous for its colorful plastic building blocks, is involved in research on the world's first shape-shifting robot.
Named the HYDRA project, based in Denmark, and inspired by cell biology, it is able to automatically take any shape and could in the future be used in areas from health care and space exploration to education and entertainment.
Another project named was the Italian cyberhand, which aims to give amputees the ability to use an artificial hand to carry out some everyday tasks, like picking up a ball or using a pair of scissors.
"They have the potential to carry out intelligent tasks with people, and for the service of people, rather than replacing people," Reding said.
EU talks on 2007-2013 spending plans collapsed at an EU summit in June. However, they are expected to be resumed before the year's end.