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MoD judges clone-drone deathmatch

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Comment The UK Ministry of Defence expects to announce the winner of its "Grand Challenge" urban-warfare robotics competition tomorrow. The last three days have seen the contending droids - those which came up to the start line in a serviceable condition, anyway - battling it out for the title in a purpose-built small town used by the British forces to practice city fighting.

"The Grand Challenge is one of a number of MoD initiatives to develop new defence technologies," said Baroness Taylor, Minister for Defence Equipment and Support.

The MIRA hover-saucer at Copehill Down

The ducted-fan war doughnut, UK style.

"The UK has a world-class track record in scientific excellence, and we want to draw on all of the expertise that is out there - from box room inventors just starting out, to the largest defence firms."

The Grand Challenge was announced by Baroness Taylor's predecessor Lord Drayson, architect of the UK's Defence Industrial Strategy - which some have said is more of a UK Industry Defence Strategy. Specifically, the Challenge doesn't actually attempt to "draw in all the expertise that is out there" - just that which is out there across the UK. Some of the competing teams are self-funded or corporately sponsored, while others have received MoD money to produce their Grand Challenge robots.

Most of the nine unmanned systems present on Saturday are variations on well-developed themes. There's a ducted-fan "flying saucer" job, not unlike ones already trialling with the Miami police and US forces in Iraq; various multirotor mini-copters, resembling the German make already used by Merseyside plods and British special forces; and any amount of more ordinary drone vehicles and aircraft, sometimes operating in trendy "swarms" - and in one case backed up by a small tethered balloon providing comms relay and overwatch.

All these various machines are supposed to head into the village of Copehill Down, specially built by the Army for urban-combat training. Waiting for them will be four enemies regarded as typical of modern warfare: A sniper, an improvised bomb, a team of gunmen possibly equipped with rockets and an armed vehicle in the mould of Somali "technicals" or the favoured conveyances of the Taleban. The idea is that the robots could be deployed ahead of advancing British troops, finding such enemies before our boys were in danger from them.

The droid team judged to have done best after today's competition will win the "R J Mitchell trophy", named after the designer of the legendary WWII Spitfire fighter. Lord Drayson apparently drew inspiration for the Grand Challenge from Mitchell's having honed his war-winning skills designing planes for the Schneider Trophy airspeed compo of the 1930s. (However, the Schneider Trophy - funded by a wealthy Frenchman - allowed international entries. And Mitchell's most famous winner, the Supermarine S6b, was refused British government funding. But it's pretty plain that Drayson was in fact more inspired by America's various recent military robo-car challenges than Mitchell, no matter what he said.)

The winning team - and perhaps others who do well - might also land a MoD contract aimed at producing an actual useable system. Such funds would be over and above any cash won as part of the Challenge competition, which has been funded to the tune of £10m by the taxpayers. It's possible that Blighty's hard-pressed combat troops, facing Grand Challenge type threats every day right now, may be grateful in years to come for some piece of kit now making its debut on the rainy streets of Copehill Down.

That said, however, if our combat troops really wanted a ducted-fan recon droid or a new pocket electro-copter, they'd quite likely have bought an off-the-shelf one already (as has already happened with the suitcase copters, in fact). They probably wouldn't insist that it be newly re-developed from scratch in the UK, with a good deal of money being spread about generally to encourage the domestic tech industry.

The Manchester Uni 'HexRotor' tumblecopter - without spherical cage

Blighty's new tumblecopter prototype.

In fact, if our combat troops were corporately given £10m to do what they liked with, they'd be quite likely to simply hire more infantrymen, or pay for more helicopter hours, or buy suitable ground vehicles for the tasks in hand or something like that. From their point of view, the Grand Challenge might resemble a combined industrial-subsidy and PR exercise, rather than any genuine hurry-up effort to address their current problems.

There is a bigger picture, of course. There is a need to develop new technologies, not just to buy those which already exist, and development of specialised military kit won't necessarily be funded by companies unsure of the kit's military welcome. But most of the stuff on show at Copehill Down is reinvented wheels, not really new stuff. In general, the Challenge is letting British tech industry play catch-up, rather than getting it ahead of the international pack. It might well be a good call for the UK government to pay for some general catch-up by its tech industry, but it's hard to see why that money should come from the hard-pressed Defence budget, rather than that of the biz department.

But it's not all bad. At least one of the Challenge robots promises to be something new. The "Tumbleweed" air vehicle, for instance, is a multi-rotor hovering electro-copter with a difference. The final version will have a spherical structure, enabling it to "roll along the ground and even up walls," according to its Manchester Uni designers, and "perch and stare from suitable urban structures". The tumbling ball-copter should be able to fit through doors, and have a price tag such that losing a few would be no problem.

The Manchester "HexRotor" tech may be better than ducted fans etc. or it may not, but at least it's new thinking, and that's quite rare. This kind of thing might actually be worth paying a few million MoD quid for. ®

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