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UK army seeks terror bomber sniffing tech, £10m reward

Multifunction threat detection bot also sought

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Armed forces Procurement Minister Lord Drayson, recently described as "quite preposterous" by fellow peers, has kicked off a £10 million ideas competition to accompany this week's launch of the UK's Defence Technology Strategy. The Strategy itself starts from the premise that "Current threats emphasise that science and technology is fundamental to UK military capability", and that the Ministry of Defence "must own and control key technologies", while the briefing documents for the ideas competition provides more specific indications of the tech-led road the MoD wishes to follow.

Or alternatively, they inadvertently paint a picture of the nightmare world of tech terror the Government reckons we're becoming immersed in. A brief review of COI (Competition of Ideas) Opportunity number one (of a total of four), "Prediction of Intent", is enough for you to start seeing the signposts saying 'Swamp' and 'Money Pit'. The MoD briefly summarises Prediction as "The ability to predict an action or event and to maximise the forewarning of its occurrence", and then launches into a substantial and baffling discourse involving the interaction of five components. For example, "Scene Sensing" is described as involving "the innovative use of sensors to capture a Point of View from a scene [is this 'looking'?] This can include a range of sensing modalities (e.g. Electro-magnetic, Chemical, Radiological, Biological, Seismic) [OK, looking while noticing if it smells, it's glowing and/or is shaking] and location/ line of sight/ Field of View determination (for all sensing modes). Functional Requirements of sensors in support of processing (feature extraction, compression, sensor control) and communication (Open Standard and Same Oriented Architectures) also play a significant role."

Life is, frankly, far to short to go through all five, but they seem to aim at figuring out what things are and where they are, who ("Suspect Under Surveillance") is there, how he/she/it and friends are behaving ("Peer Group Interactions") and the probability of their loosing off something at someone, quite possibly you.

To precis further, the Prediction of Intent project is intended to help automate surveillance and recognition systems in order to spot roadside bombs, all possible variations of terror bombs (CBRN), and to lob in quite a bit of behaviour analysis and background intelligence in the hope of being able to differentiate between law-abiding people going about their business and suicide jihadis pretending to be law-abiding people, but actually about to detonate. There, that was easy, wasn't it? Why didn't they say so in the first place?

But to be fair, we get more to the point a little further on, with the presentation of four illustrative scenarios: - Identifying whether individuals, organisations or infrastructure [which takes surveillance some considerable distance from the roadside], by what means and in what timescale, intend to cause harm to people. - Predicting whether people at a roadside intend to attack military vehicles with, for example, Rocket Propelled Grenades or in control of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) - Predicting in a crowded place whether a person intends to cause harm by acting as a suicide bomber - Predicting in a busy coastal or harbour environment whether a small craft and its occupants intends to attack a naval ship

It's surely no coincidence that much of this could be deployed (if, that is, it worked) in civilian environments, nor is it a coincidence (although there's a certain irony to it) that Qinetiq, the privatised company spun out of the MoD's Defence Evaluation & Research Agency, is currently pushing very hard into civilian security, detection, surveillance and prediction equipment markets. Assuming we're not going to be getting into many more Iraqs and Afghanistans, it's boom-time for deploying the kit at home, and with the aid of its famous planning, development, purchasing and procurement capabilities ('I laughed till I burst' - chairman, Public Accounts Committee), the MoD is set to cash in.

Of the other three "opportunities", Protection seems fairly plain-sailing, Automatic Object Recognition (is it a bird, is it a plane, is it a Stinger?) would be nice if you could do it and also has home-front applications and and overlap with Prediction, while Ad Hoc Networking sounds a deeply promising money-sink. "Spontaneous formation of networks of people, equipment, media and information in support of collaboration and decision making" - aka Napoleon meets the Hive Mind? Or Bowman, but bigger and more complicated. All of the suggested Ad Hoc Networking scenarios look like good ways to spend huge sums on stuff that'll never work, but this one in particular shows some synergy with Prediction (i.e., the mission's positively suicidal): "Ways to allow military staff to use legacy defence infrastructure when working collaboratively with civilian government and NGO staffs who are interconnected via cellular infrastructure, a local wireless LAN or an Ad Hoc Network in a peace stabilisation and disaster relief operations."

The Defence Technology Strategy is broken down into nine key target areas, including the two broad generics of "Cross-Cutting Technologies" and "Emerging Technologies." The others are: "Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (C4ISTAR) [C3i with gold-plated knobs on]; Close Combat and Combat Support; Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN); General Munitions and Energetics Technologies; Fixed Wing and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs); Helicopters; Maritime."

So lots of exciting, sexy and expensive stuff there. And so much more fun than employing more squaddies, buying more helicopters or equipping with better protected personnel carriers. Alongside the COI, Drayson also announced a Grand Challenge "to produce an autonomous or semi-autonomous system designed to detect, identify, monitor and report a comprehensive range of physical threats in a complex urban environment." Allegedly - details of this seem currently to be scarce to non-existent, and the MoD seems not yet to have explained the world how one might set about meeting this challenge. But start prototyping self-propelled universal terror detection and neutralisation bots and you probably won't be far off beam... (The Competition of Ideas, the announcement, Defence Technology Strategy ®

Furthermore... The MoD's recent efforts as regards UAVs have not been entirely crowned with success. Could this possibly be because the UAVs we've been trying to build are subtly different from everybody else's? This is by no means unusual, given that the MoD can take a basic operational product like, say, the Chinook, and then render it totally useless by pouring special Brit kill-it-stone-dead tech sauce on top. Anyways, sharp-eyed Nick Wilson draws our attention to the rare uniqueness of our UAVs - whereas everybody else builds Unmanned Aerial Vehicles we, the MoD docs say, have things called Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles. Obviously these are cooler than the Yank ones, because you've only got to look at the name of the latter to realise they're actually piloted by women...

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