Mon, May 05, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Boys' toys ride to the rescue of defense officials

By Ian Sample  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

“We call it boys’ toys for warfare,” bellows Chris Burgess, as the hip-hop act Stromkern roars Come Armageddon Come from the plasma screen behind him.

On the video a radio-controlled buggy is zipping along a dusty street, its onboard camera swiveling left and right, on the lookout for snipers and roadside bombs that might lie ahead.

Burgess belongs to one of 11 teams unveiled as finalists in the UK Ministry of Defence’s most ambitious –– and unusual –– attempt to bring high-tech science to the frontline. Called the Grand Challenge, the £4 million (US$7.9 million) project calls on engineers to design a robot that can scour an urban area for enemy combatants and explosives and report back, preferably without human intervention.

Among the finalists are a swarm of tiny helicopters that can peer into windows, a flying saucer, and what looks like a scaled-down version of a mechanical diggger. By August the teams, a hodge-podge of defense companies, universities and sixth form colleges, will go head-to-head over three weeks to decide on a winner. The battle will be played out on the streets of Copehill Down, a mock- up of an East German village built in the English countryside during the Cold War.

The competition will test each robot’s ability to go into the village and spot different threats, including snipers, groups of gunmen, armed vehicles and improvised explosive devices. Teams will be docked points for missing threats, being slow and targeting harmless civilians lurking among the buildings.

“It’s a very tough challenge,” said Andy Wallace at the ministry. “They have to deploy, move around by themselves and avoid obstacles, while locating and identifying things that pose a threat before reporting back.”

Among the contenders

Barnard Microsystems: Helicopter with Sat Nav streams video back to user’s glasses

Silicon Valley: Moonbuggy patrols while glider captures pictures

Cortex: Two hovering planes carry optical sensors and zoomable video

Team Tumbleweed: Flying ball uses feature-tracking software to identify threats

Mindsheet: Buggies use Sat Nav to patrol and video to send images

Mira: Flying saucer-like vehicles use infrared cameras and laser- tracking

Swarm Systems: Helicopters hover over buildings and identify threats


The challenge is a tacit admission that the large defense companies which provide the British military’s frontline technology rarely come up with the most imaginative ideas.

By throwing open the challenge to all comers the British government aims to tap the brainpower of smaller companies and individual researchers. The idea was pioneered by the Pentagon, whose own Grand Challenge was set up to encourage new technology for driverless vehicles.

The winner will receive the RJ Mitchell trophy, named after the father of the Spitfire World War II fighter plane and molded from metal recycled from one of the fighters. Those who perform best will get backing from the ministry to turn their robots into gadgets that will support soldiers in the future.

Team Mira, one of the finalists backed by BAE Systems and involving students from the Royal Grammar school in Guildford, south of London, has built a ground-based buggy that uses a laser scanner, thermal imaging and cameras to scan the streets for signs of danger. To check rooftops and other inaccessible areas the buggy automatically launches a flying saucer-like vehicle that can hover over buildings and send images back to base.

“It’s a bit like Wacky Races,” team member Richard Adams said.

Another of the finalists, Swarm Systems, is putting its faith in eight “quadrotors” –– small, flat helicopters the size of dinner plates that will fly into the village in formation and beam back video and sound. Microphones built into the aerial vehicles filter out everything except voices. The helicopters are designed to take off autonomously and can fly a few meters above the ground.

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