MoD challenge pits tag teams against lone robo-rangers

When it comes to spotting roadside bombs and snipers, some of the teams who have entered the UK Ministry of Defence’s Grand Challenge are taking no chances. Although a number of teams are putting their faith in a single small robot aircraft or car, others aim to deploy a Thunderbirds-like armoury of moon-buggies, gliders and helicopters.

The search systems, which are being developed by business and university teams as part of a Ministry of Defence competition, went on display in central London this week. Equipped with cameras and other sensors, the autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles are designed to detect and identify a range of threats in an urban environment, including armed combatants, snipers and roadside bombs.

The information is fed back to a control centre, or in some cases a PDA or mobile phone, where commanders on the ground can decide what action to take. The MoD said The Grand Challenge competition aimed to provide an opening for new suppliers and investors in the UK defence market.

Many of the 11 teams left in the competition decided to use a combination of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), most of them navigating with the help of GPS receivers. The basic cost of the vehicles ranges from tens of pounds for a polystyrene plane to tens of thousands of pounds for mini helicopters and twin tracked buggies.

Thales, a supplier of advanced electronics, plans to use two battery-powered helicopters weighing 7kg at a basic cost of £15,000 each, equipped with cameras and thermal imaging.

The UAVs work in combination with two UGVs weighing about 75kg each, which travel at walking pace.

Spokesman Paul Mottershead said the helicopters were quiet but even if they drew enemy fire it would help to determine that there was a threat. “It’s not the cost of the vehicles, it’s the cost of the lives that you are saving. It’s better to take out a bit of metal than a soldier,” he said.

The Stellar team will use a plane with a 3.5 metre wingspan flying at up to 100m to provide aerial mapping. A ground vehicle is then deployed to find out more.

Doug Heley of Stellar Research services said: “It builds up a database of where the targets might be and starts to prioritise where it uses its assets.”

Up to six smaller planes are then bungee-launched to 100ft to confirm threats with optical cameras.

The polystyrene planes can continue to operate even if their wings are peppered with bullets.

The frame costs “tens of pounds” but will cost “a few thousand” when loaded with sensors, which differentiate between soldier and civilian with metal-detecting radar and by assessing the subject’s stance.

Mira, an independent provider of product engineering, plans to deploy two flying saucer-like surveillance vehicles with infra red cameras and laser scanners, combining with a UGV the size of a 4x4 to act as a kind of aircraft carrier. Chris Mellors said: “It can fly at low levels and it has no exposed rotors or bits so we can bump into things.

“It can fly over garden walls and look through windows. It can resist gusts of wind and a bullet hole won’t necessarily do too much damage.“

I-Spy, a team from Middlesex University, will deploy a tri-rotor helicopter equipped with thermal imaging, guided autonomously by pre-programmed GPS points.

Tom Foran, 21, who is working on the project during a placement year, said: “We still feel there’s the need for a human operator to make the final decision. We haven’t got to the Terminator stage yet.”

Rob Mullins of Team Locust, headed by Advanced New Technologies (ANT), said: “We’ve concentrated on size, weight and functionality.”

The idea is for the 600g craft, powered by twin rotors, to drop tiny cameras, audio and tremble sensors from the air.

Other teams include Mindsheet, using low-cost battery-powered buggies, which can be bought off the shelf - as remote control cars - and fitted with ultrasonic sensors and cameras; and Silicon Valley, which uses a glider and two moonbuggies, one the size of a quadbike and the other the size of a dog.

The MoD is helping to fund six of the teams in their research and development.

In August the finalists will demonstrate their capabilities at Copehill Down, on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, a village specially built by the military for urban warfare training. The winner takes home a trophy made from the metal of a Spitfire aircraft. However, many of the companies involved are aiming for a bigger prize: lucrative contracts to work on surveillance equipment that will be deployed in the field.

Image: Raglan Tribe of Mindsheet holds the robot car on which his team will rely in August

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