Toys for the front line

2 May 2008

It was a with a hint of disdain that Raglan Tribe nodded across at the teams placed next to his company’s table. "You see some of the other teams? You have one right here. They have all this equipment. We have just got this one vehicle," he said, pointing to the small battery-powered car sitting beside him.

Until Tribe and his colleagues at consultancy Mindsheet stripped it down and gave it a new electronic brain, it was a regular toy car. Now, it’s a wheeled robot that is meant to find guerilla marksmen hiding in alleyways and buildings. But Mindsheet was flanked by two teams that are not taking any chances in the UK Ministry of Defence Grand Challenge final in the summer: they have one-time nuclear-waste inspection and bomb-disposal robots that are meant to work alongside purpose-made aircraft and off-the-shelf gliders. The venue was a conference to show off what Grand Challenge teams had developed so far to visiting military chiefs and researchers.

The Mindsheeet vehicle was meant to be small and easily portable, not like some of the vehicles sitting nearby, including a UAV with a 1.5m wingspan. Tribe said his team talked to soldiers who fought in conflicts such as Afghanistan to find out what they needed. Soldiers are pretty consistent in what they want: something light, easy to assemble and reliable.

At a seminar last year to kick off the competition, which is meant to uncover robotic technologies that can detect threats in the kind of wars that the British Army is now fighting, in countries such as Afghanistan, soldiers talked about the problem. They want to be able to see a lot more when on patrol. But, when your pack already weighs 70kg, anything else that goes in has to earn its keep.

The armed forces found that the large UAVs they have used are not always that effective. It is often difficult to book time on them and they can't see everything. The problem for the army in Afghanistan is that it is often working around the walled compounds found in the country's towns.

The current UAVs work best in rural areas. Major Giles Timms, who commanded B Company on a tour in Afghanistan, said the UAVs they had access to could not see through the tree cover present in many of the environments his soldiers had to patrol in Sangin Valley.

Timms said the company had used the Desert Hawk UAV made by Lockheed Martin but that it was "a bit hit and miss with us. It was quite difficult in that terrain. With big, thick heavy canopy, the enemy can hide easily. It has utility but it has limitations".

In towns, soldiers want roving eyes that are smaller and more agile, able to see over walls but keep below the trees and get closer. "How do I tell the difference between a gunman, someone with an RPG or someone carrying scaffolding poles. Very difficult to do with [today's UAVs]," said Lt Col Ian Thompson of 3Para last year.

That is where the Grand Challenge comes in: find companies with designs for much smaller, cheaper and manoeuvrable robot vehicles. However, the reality is that any robot vehicle that goes out on patrol probably won't have to displace equipment in a backpack. "Where I believe we will end up is with a piece of equipment that [is carried around] inside a helicopter," Thompson said.

At the end is a trophy, cast from metal taken from a Spitfire. Unlike the US Grand Challenge competitions there is no cash prize: HM Treasury rules don't allow it. But the aim of most of the 11 teams taking part is not to win the trophy but to pick up the research-and-development contracts that will result from any piece of technology that piques the interest of defence users. The Grand Challenge is not so much a competition as a showcase for technology the MoD might not otherwise find. And some teams want to make sure they have all their bases covered.

The two teams that flanked Mindsheet had at their disposal ground robots and gliders. The Stellar team’s entry will use a land robot built on the chassis of a bomb-disposal vehicle that will work with not one but two different UAVs. The Silicon Valley team has two robotic vehicles from Moonbuggy - one of them used for surveying radiation-contamined land - and an regular model glider fitted with cameras under the wings and GPS receiver.

"We have got our eyes on what comes after the competition and designed our whole architecture around that. The system has got a lot more built-in functionality that would be used in more representative scenarios," said Steve Fernandes of Selex Galileo, which is part-funding the Stellar team. "What we have been doing is engaging the military customer to look at the scenarios and how the system could be deployed. We have tried to look across all the lines of development. We have tried to look at logistics and how the system fits in with other military equipment. And, most importantly, how it would link into the large systems currently deployed, such as Bowman."

But the link into the military networks has not escaped Mindsheet, as some companies involved with the Grand Challenge also want to see what small robots can do. Two teams, and Mindsheet is one of them, took up an offer from MBDA to have its cars hook into the defence-technology supplier’s network to download the data they capture.

Many of the teams have adapted off-the-shelf hardware. Some, like Mindsheet are using adapted toys. Model helicopters are particularly popular, although their petrol-driven engines are noisier and will attract more attention from a marksman than the custom-designed battery-powered aircraft that were on show. Teams went with the readymade hardware because time was tight – the competition did not launch officially until the spring of last year – but also because a lot of the focus is on sensors and getting the vehicles to work autonomously. How much time vehicles can keep running is a problem – many of them will run for no more than a couple of hours on a full charge – but teams believe they can work on that later.

Bill Bailey, a consultant to Selex Galileo and former head of intelligence in Afghanistan, explained: "They are just platforms. If someone comes out with a better platform, we can use that. And they have to be cheap because they will need to be replaced."

August is when these machines will be put through their paces in what is something of an experiment for the MoD as it tries to get smaller companies and universities to supply it. A total of 11 teams have made it to the final. Some will be happy to compete for just the trophy, but most are hoping that what they really get is an R&D contract.