Shape of things to comeFlying saucers, tiny helicopters compete in British war game

Published 10 May 2008

The U.K. Ministry of defense held its first Grand Challenge technology competition last week; six finalists receive $600,000 each to develop their concepts into machines; finalists will meet for mock battle in August

The U.K. Ministry of Defense sponsored a competition,
held in central London on 30 April 2008, aiming to encourage
scientists, inventors, and academics to turn ideas into machines for army and
first responders use in urban environments. The competition has attracted a
range of futuristic vehicles and technologies that could one day help forces to
identify and avert threats to operations. These ideas are currently being
developed by teams from universities, schools and private business from across
the United Kingdom. Finalists
will take part in a mock battle in August in Copehill Down, a village that was
modeled on an East German one when it was built for military training during
the cold war. During the mock battle, emotion-detecting robot cars will face off against
eavesdropping flying saucers, as the scientists, academics, and schoolchildren march
their next generation of military equipment to the battlefield.

The six
finalists in the British Ministry of Defense’s first ever Grand Challenge each received $600,000
to build such contraptions as a disc-shaped remote-controlled flying robots
fitted with heat and motion sensors. From Swarm
Systems Ltd
. comes a set of tiny helicopters which fly in formation into a
village and record images and audio tracks to beam back to headquarters.
British aeronautical company BAE Systems teamed up with the University of Manchester to build a self-propelled,
remote-controlled camera. The Silicon Valley Group, a
small research company in Lightwater, Surrey, teamed with the Bruton School for Girls in Somerset to build an unmanned buggy that
can analyze gunmen’s movements to determine whether they are angry or nervous.
“This project has really allowed us to broaden out our vision and look at
what other work is being done out there in our field,” said Norman
Gregory, the company’s business manager. “We are a small company and would
not have been able to put together a consortium to develop such a sophisticated
system without this competition.” The U.K. government wanted participants to
get schools involved, Gregory said, so the company consulted the Bruton School, which already sponsored robot
design competitions.

In the August mock battle in Copehill Down, the
contestants will have their machines search for pretend gunmen and mock bombs,
earning points for each find and losing points for hitting civilians or
transmitting data too slowly. The contest’s winner gets a trophy made from the
recycled metal recovered from a Second World War fighter jet. The best designs
also will get further financial backing from Britain’s defense ministry.