Page last updated at 10:49 GMT, Thursday, 14 August 2008 11:49 UK

Robot wars helping British troops

Some of the robots being tested on Salisbury Plain

A competition to design new technology for the military is being held in a mocked-up wartime village on Salisbury Plain. The BBC's Alison Harper has been to see it.

You can feel the tension in the air. The team's eyes darting from rooftop to ground looking for threats.

Around the next corner, is there an ambush waiting?

Or are they already targets in a sniper's range?

The answer could be right beside them. This is no battlefield, but a competition to discover the latest technology to locate and identify threats to our troops.

Copehill Down Village is a purpose built training facility in the heart of Salisbury Plain. It's based on an Eastern European town complete with a church, hotel, school and bar.

The concrete facade could be hiding marksmen and the roadside could be littered with improvised explosive devices.

But here for today's contest there is a mix of bizarre looking robots and flying machines all capable of spying on the enemy.

This may be a mocked-up wartime scenario, but the technology is very real and could be developed for use by our military.

Thermal imaging

The Moon Buggy wouldn't look out of place in a James Bond film.

Built by Surrey-based company Silicon Valley, there are two versions - a large diesel one which has stretchers attached to its sides, and a mini electric-powered version which can go at quite a pace over mixed terrain.

One has a 360-degree camera on board, the other thermal imaging. The latter's antenna reaches high, and is able to gather images, beaming them back to a computer where they can be analysed for risk without anyone's life being put in any danger.

The Silicon Valley group has a background in technology and research and says this robot has needed last-minute tweaking to improve its communications before the competition.

Team member Norman Gregory said: "It is close to getting to where we expect it, [but] we need more time to perfect it, because a key part is software for image recognition and threat assessment which has been developed by the University of Reading and Kingston University, and the maturity level of the software is improving as we speak.

Prototype military robot
The robots are designed to make life safer for troops on the battlefield

"The system is designed to detect people who are stationary with weapons. It's designed to pick up people images and vehicle images and process them.

"We're going out to search for a certain type of target. If we know what we're looking for we can probably find it."

One step ahead

There is a demand for this new robotic technology.

With troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan facing daily dangers from, among others, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the Ministry of Defence is keen to find innovative, autonomous systems which can be used to identify the risks without putting lives on the line.

"We're trying to help our armed forces, who are doing a very dangerous job, do that job more effectively," says Professor Phil Sutton, the director general of science and technology strategy at the MoD.

"I don't think the things we're seeing now are ready to go for operational use, clearly we would need to do a bit more work to get them rugged.

"We now have an adversary that is very determined, very imaginative so it's critical that our armed forces can be one step ahead of them. We need to be innovative, creative, agile and that's really what this is all about, achieving that."

The winners of the competition will take home the RJ Mitchell Trophy, named after the man known as the father of the iconic Spitfire.

It is cast from metal recovered from one of the planes flown in World War II. The winners will be announced on 19 August.

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