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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 October 2006, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
MoD to launch 'urban challenge'
By Paul Rincon
Science Reporter, BBC News

British soldiers man a checkpoint in Basra  Image: AFP
Technology is vital to meeting future challenges, says the MOD
The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) is launching a "grand challenge" to find new technology to help ground troops detect threats in urban areas.

It is inspired by a Pentagon-sponsored robot race to spur research into autonomous vehicles for the US forces.

The challenge will pit the best entrants against each other in a rigorous trial to identify a winner.

Defence Procurement Minister Lord Drayson said the victor would pick up a trophy and possibly an MoD contract.

The Grand Challenge aims to produce an autonomous or semi-autonomous technology system designed to "detect, identify, monitor and report a comprehensive range of physical threats in a complex urban environment".

The minister said the system would be designed for use by troops on peacekeeping or counter-insurgency operations.

Stimulating innovation

The competition is part of the MoD's Defence Technology Strategy (DTS), launched today in London, and intended to boost innovation and research in the defence sector.

An MoD spokesperson said the contest was likely to be broad in scope, "in the spirit of encouraging people to think more widely and to have opportunities to take technologies forward that we perhaps haven't thought of".

Image of finalist SciAutonics vehicle
Darpa's challenge aims to spur research into autonomous vehicles
Lord Drayson said it was "not about developing weapons systems".

Full details of the challenge will be unveiled next month.

The minister also announced a 10m Competition of Ideas to identify and develop the best ideas in science and technology from individuals, academia and industry.

"We are seeking the best new ideas that can rapidly be turned into equipment for our armed forces," he said, adding: "I am well aware how difficult it is for smaller companies and research laboratories to get large organisations interested in their ideas.

"Through the Grand Challenge and the Competition of Ideas, I believe we will make it much easier for them to approach MoD."

Defence priorities

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) Grand Challenge offers a $2m (1.14m) prize.

The MoD contest offers winners a potential follow-on contract to conduct further proving tests on their design against MoD requirements.

In the US, Darpa sponsors high-risk research that bridges the gap between fundamental discoveries and their military use.

While the UK could not match this US agency's spending on R&D, ministry of defence scientists have been looking at the Darpa model to see how best to incorporate elements of it into existing UK defence structures.

The Defence Technology Strategy sets out the areas of R&D viewed as important to the future provision of UK military capability. It is the first time the MoD has openly published its priorities for R&D, skills, delivery and international collaboration.

Lord Drayson said the DTS would help the MoD and industry plan future investment in research and development.

"In particular, it allows us to identify clear R&D priorities, including those areas in which we believe it is important to maintain sovreignty control, highlight opportunities for collaboration and provide long-term support to the UK's science and technology skill base," he commented.

Examples of priority areas in the document include new radar sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), biological, chemical and radiological weapons protection, weapons to disrupt terrorist devices, technology for military infrastructure and munitions.

The MoD will also sponsor up to three university research fellowship schemes in cooperation with the Royal Society. These are designed to support academic work of high importance to defence.


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