'Tesla-like' robot hub set for Norfolk former RAF base
- Credit: Academy of Robotics
A technology tycoon has bought a former military base in Norfolk as the headquarters of his revolutionary robotics company.
The move will put the county at the forefront of cutting-edge driverless vehicle development.
William Sachiti, a millionaire entrepreneur who has appeared on Dragons' Den, is relocating his firm, Academy of Robotics, to the former RAF Neatishead site, close to Wroxham.
The company - which he has described as a UK version of Tesla - is one of the leaders of the driverless car revolution, having already successfully developed a delivery vehicle.
It is moving to Norfolk from its centre in Surrey and will operate from existing buildings at the 26-acre Neatishead base.
As a sign of his commitment to the scheme, Mr Sachiti, the firm's chief executive officer and founder, is moving to live at premises on the former radar base.
He said that he had been looking at potential sites across the UK before settling on Norfolk.
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Proximity to technology and research firms in Cambridge was a particular selling point, along with the talent available in the county, he added.
He said that existing infrastructure on the base was also well suited to the development work.
"Lotus isn’t too far away, so there’s talent around and not to mention a lot of RAF skilled personnel some of who are retired. We hire all sorts of ages so this is a good site because everything is there," he continued.
Mr Sachiti said: “For us, the great benefit of the site is that so much of the core infrastructure we need is already in place, so we are keen to work with the facilities, which already exist on the site and to create a new purpose for the site based on autonomous robotics.
“Re-using existing infrastructure offers huge advantages not only for us, but also for the environment and we are already working on laying the foundations to make this a much more sustainable site.”
The firm plans to stay at the site for the foreseeable future and hopes to start moving its operations across over the next month with all the renovation work being completed by the end of summer.
The existing museum on the base will remain untouched by the development and Mr Sachiti stressed that the firm will cause little disruption to the local community.
"Our day job is we design and build autonomous vehicles and this is not limited to cars," he said. "We build every aspect that goes into this. So this is the work and testing it.
"We were quite a small company and a very small team but we’re moving to the site to scale-up production, so if you image a small Tesla-like company when they are still young is moving in, it is something more along those lines."
The company has already created innovative robots, with its award-winning Kar-go model being at the forefront of the driverless car revolution.
It is being tested by the Royal Air Force on a base in Oxfordshire to free-up personnel from mundane tasks.
This car uses a combination of advanced robotics and driverless technology to offer a delivery service through urban areas.
North Norfolk MP, Duncan Baker, welcomes the company's move to the site.
He said: “RAF Neatishead and the north Norfolk region has a strong heritage in technology and the automotive industry and we are pleased to see innovative high growth companies like Academy of Robotics recognising the potential of the area.
“Having met with William Sachiti and some of his company’s team at RAF Neatishead, it is very clear they have an impressive vision for the site.
"The plans Academy of Robotics has to scale-up and expand their operations will help us to attract top talent to the region, create job opportunities and develop new skills and expertise in north Norfolk and we look forward to working with them to support their ambitions to help the UK to become a world leader in autonomous and automotive technology.”
Who is the robotics tycoon?
The 37-year-old entrepreneur was born in Zimbabwe and moved to the UK when he was 17.
William Sachiti first appeared in the public eye when he appeared on Dragons’ Den looking for £65,000 investment for his company Clever Bins. Although he was unsuccessful in gaining the investment, the firm continued operating for three years before closing in 2013.
Mr Sachiti became a mature student in 2015 when he attended Aberystwyth University in Wales to study artificial intelligence and robotics.
While there he was credited with inventing the world’s first artificially intelligent robot librarian, which was capable of holding a conversation, taking verbal commands and able to navigate users to any one of several million books in the library.
He set up Academy of Robotics using a £10,000 grant from Aberystwyth University.
Mr Sachiti has won numerous awards, most recently the Disruptor of the Year by the Great British Entrepreneur Awards in 2021.
Academy of Robotics is at the forefront of driverless technology.
The firm’s innovative Kar-go robot is an automated vehicle that uses driverless technology to offer a delivery service through urban environments.
It can reach up to 60mph and is being tested on a Royal Air Force base in Oxfordshire.
Along with being designed for the use of the military, the vehicle can drive on unmarked roads within residential areas.
It was awarded the Aberystwyth InvEnterPrize in 2017.
A history of RAF Neatishead
Established during the Second World War, RAF Neatishead operated as a radar centre.
During the Cold War the site became an important part of the nation’s air defence against the Soviet air threat.
In the 1960s the base was engulfed by tragedy when a fire was started at the site, which led to the death of three local firefighters who became trapped in a building while tackling the flames and were overcome by the smoke.
The station remained closed for eight years and when it reopened in 1974 major work has been carried out on rebuilding the site.
By 2006 it was downgraded to Remote Radar Head (RRH) status, with no RAF personnel being stationed at the location.
A museum remains open at the site.