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Helping robots navigate the world: Chief Executive Officer

Owen develops algorithms that help robots and drones to understand where they are and what’s around them, making it easier for tech innovators to build the robots of the future.


Owen Nicholson SLAMcore

I think robots are the answer, not the problem, to most of the threats we face as a society – from climate change to sustainable agriculture to helping the elderly live productive and fulfilling lives.”

First name: Owen | Job title: CEO | Organisation: SLAMcore
Qualifications: MSc, Innovation and Technology Management, University of Bath; BSc, Physics, University of Bristol

What is your passion?
I guess innovation is the thing that has always been my main focus. Creating something that didn’t exist before that has a wide-reaching impact. The bit where I’ve tried to build my career is in how you do that in practice.

How did you get to where you are today?
At the end of my undergrad physics degree, I had a PhD lined up that brought together a couple of my passions: physics and music. But as it got closer, I realised that although I love the science and the maths, it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do as a career. So instead, I started looking at graduate schemes, and that’s when I came across the Ministry of Defence Engineer and Scientist Graduate Scheme. There I was trained in the project management of early-stage technology development, and got to work on a few different programmes. After that, I moved into a completely different and fascinating world at Dyson, where I helped set up the Dyson Robotics Lab at Imperial College London. That’s where I was introduced to the world of robotics and met the founding team from SLAMcore.

What is the impact of your work?
I think robots are the answer, not the problem, to most of the threats we face as a society – from climate change to sustainable agriculture to helping the elderly live productive and fulfilling lives. The key is making sure the robotics industry is not controlled by a handful of large companies, that it’s something that’s truly democratised.

At SLAMcore, we’re trying to make it easier for companies to build robots that can understand their space and navigate effectively. Humans do that well. We inherently know where we are in space relative to the world around us and objects in our vicinity. But that’s actually very complicated for a robot.

We are building a simple, low-cost product that gives a robot the ability to position itself within a map in real time, and can allow any robotics company to take this very complicated part of the stack and not have to worry about the inner workings. They just install something that works, so that they can get on with the other problems they need to solve when building a robot.

SLAMcore

How does your physics background help you in your role?
I can’t always be the cleverest person in the room – that’s impossible. I need to rely on much more intelligent people in their domains than me to make the core decisions about the tech. But, as CEO, I need to have enough of an understanding to make sure that I’m balancing the different priorities of the company. That’s where the physics comes in. I think physics teaches you how to understand complex problems, because ultimately it’s the study of systems. It’s particularly relevant in this space because it’s hard to appreciate what’s important, and what’s not, and what’s realistic without an underlying understanding of physics.

What advice would you give to a young person interested in a career focusing on robotics?
I would say go for it, as it’s one of the most rewarding careers you could have, and I mean that in both senses of the word – you will have a huge impact and it’s going to be one of the most highly paid industries of the future.

Going against my own career here, my advice is to try to find somewhere to focus. If you want to be a technical roboticist find an area where you can go deep. A technical generalist is going to struggle to really shine.

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