U.K. appliance-maker Dyson is taking a leaf out of the Apple and Facebook playbook.
The U.K. company known for its vacuum cleaners and, more recently, hair care appliances, said Wednesday it will build a new 517-acre campus dedicated largely to researching applications for artificial intelligence and robotics. The move fueled speculation that the company will try to break into the field of electric and autonomous driving.
Founder Sir James Dyson told the BBC that the company had already outgrown its first campus in Malmesbury, 100 miles west of London, since opening it four years ago. It has now bought a disused military airfield at the nearby site of Hullavington “so that we can expand our technology development there.”
Dyson said that the company would be researching “lots of things” that the company still isn’t going public about, but said that “battery development will certainly be one of them.”
“To win on the world stage, you have to develop new technology and great products, and that’s what we’re doing here,” he said.
Dyson was coy about how much the company (which is private and doesn’t disclose financial results) will invest at the site, but its R&D spending currently runs at around $450 million a year. The BBC said the company will look to double its headcount in the U.K. to nearly 7,000 within the next six years.
The BBC quoted local mayor Wayne Jones as saying Dyson “bought a battery company a couple of years ago so there is talk it will involve some sort of battery production or vehicle production. My gut feeling is he’ll go down the electric car route.”
Dyson told The Times that: “We are very excited about the opportunities AI and greater connectivity will bring. There is still sometimes a perception that we’re a vacuum cleaner company but we’re now focused on software and writing algorithms as much as hardware.”
One of Dyson’s problems in the past has been the shortage of locals with the required engineering skill sets. To remedy that, he has created the company’s own Institute of Technology at the Malmesbury campus, which will offer four-year engineering courses with the University of Warwick when it opens later this year. One of the institute’s core focuses will be on robotics and autonomous devices.
The announcement is the latest vote of confidence in the U.K. economy from the technology sector since the vote to leave the European Union last June, and one that goes against the general mood of pessimism about Brexit in business circles. It follows a $1 billion investment by Google parent Alphabet (GOOGL) and significant other pledges from IBM (IBM) and Facebook (FB). Dyson himself was a prominent campaigner for Brexit.