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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 November 2006, 09:00 GMT
MoD looks to spirit of Robot Wars
Eye ball surveillance device being thrown
Eye ball can be hurled into buildings in the manner of grenades
As world armies gear up for the next generation of warfare, the MoD is asking British inventors to help out and conjure up the spirit of Robot Wars.

It is all part of a search for new technology that could help ground troops detect threats in urban areas.

Surveillance cameras in rubber balls, guns that can fire around corners, robotic heavy machine guns and unmanned warplanes.

It all sounds a little bit like the Heath-Robinson contraptions on Robot Wars or Doctor Who, but the Ministry of Defence has already evaluated all of these items for use in urban warfare.

Now it is setting up a challenge to see if British inventors can go even further in their blue skies thinking and revolutionise the way war is fought in cities.

Army planners and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have a dream. If more and more reconnaissance, and even fighting missions, can be undertaken by robots and drones, then military and civilian casualties can be reduced.

During the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as the now well-known General Atomics Predator drone has risen dramatically with an estimated 800 operating in the two countries.

Sword robot with machine gun
This would have cleaned up in Robot Wars

The US is leading the way in the new technology, but the MoD hopes it can unearth another RJ Mitchell, the famed inventor of the Spitfire, and encourage small businesses, university labs and even "shed inventors" to pitch in.

Candidates making the shortlist will get funding and help to develop a prototype machine and look forward to production.

Piloted from control centres as far afield as Nevada, the drones scan insurgent positions, detect roadside bombs and now can be equipped with air-to-surface missiles.

Newspapers reported in August that the UK was buying at least two of the latest Predators for use in Afghanistan. Their ability to watch over cities for 30 hours without a break sets them apart from manned surveillance planes.

Almost as renowned in military circles is Foster-Miller's Talon robot, used to peer inside caves in Tora Bora in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

Examples of use of drones in dangerous areas such as Falluja have convinced officials that urban warfare will be increasingly influenced by new technology and it will not just be flying robots.

Predator B
Speed: 250 mph
Wingspan: 66ft
Weight: 4536 kg
Missiles: Four Hellfire
Endurance: 30 hours +

Jane's aerospace and technology editor Bill Sweetman said consumer and military technology was increasingly feeding off each other, something the MoD will be looking to exploit.

Miniaturisation of digital camera technology is making possible mini-drones that could go right up to insurgents' positions in a way that humans could only replicate with great risk.

"It means that every reconnaissance operation doesn't have the potential to blow up into a firefight," Mr Sweetman explained.

The MoD is asking for competitors to "produce a system that can detect, identify, monitor and report a comprehensive range of threats in a complex urban environment".

But as well as robotics it is looking for developments in sensors like thermal imaging that could help in crowded cities.

It has recently carried through the Urbex project to evaluate available equipment for use in urban warfare.

Hiram Maxim: Machine gun
RJ Mitchell: Spitfire
Frank Whittle: Jet engine
Robert Watson-Watt: Radar
Barnes Wallis: Bouncing bomb

Devices included the "eye ball", sensors packed into a ball that can be hurled into a building by soldiers, and the "cornershot" a gun with a camera that can fire round corners while the soldier remains safe behind cover.

Also attracting interest were robots that could blow access holes in buildings, as well as a machine that uses acoustic sensors to locate where sniper fire is coming from and automatically returns fire with a machine gun.

Now the MoD is going a step further and trying to encourage some more competition for the established arms manufacturers like BAE, Thales, and Lockheed Martin.

It will be trying to avoid the example of Sir Frank Whittle, where early scepticism delayed the military introduction of his ideas on jet engines.

And it emphasises the competition is open to absolutely anyone. Anyone who can keep a secret that is.

MoD to launch 'urban challenge'
17 Oct 06 |  Science/Nature
'Eternal planes' to watch over us
02 Aug 05 |  Science/Nature
Allies plough billions into drones
08 Apr 05 |  Americas
Fact file: RQ-1 Predator
16 Apr 03 |  Americas
US drones take combat role
05 Nov 02 |  In Depth

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