Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Artificial Warfare

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Artificial Warfare

Article excerpt

Copehill Down, on Salisbury Plain, is a mock-German town that spends most of its time pretending to be a Middle Eastern village for troop training sessions in urban warfare. But for three days in August it has had robots on patrol.

The town hosted the Ministry of Defence's Grand Challenge final, in which 11 teams tested robot surveillance systems. The MoD hid roadside bombs and marksmen, while the teams designed an autonomous system that could detect, identify, locate and report on these threats.

Most came up with a mix of unmanned air and ground vehicles (UAVs and UGVs). There was a group of highly manoeuvrable helicopters, a converted bomb-disposal vehicle-the eventual winner-and a buggy previously deployed at Sellafield to rescue people in the event of a nuclear accident. Some of the systems were small enough to fly into buildings. Others had chemical sniffers.

One of the greatest challenges was retrieving the images from the device and designing software capable of understanding what it was looking at. Team Stella's software had been taught to recognise different vehicles. It could also scan windows, detect heat signatures, and decide if a target was a cat or a sniper.

While a few big defence firms such as Thales took part, the Grand Challenge aimed to get small companies and universities involved. Sixth forms at Bruton School for Girls and the Royal Grammar School in Guildford also participated.


The systems are not only for overseas use. Last year, Merseyside Police launched a test drone for surveillance that started off as a military system. …

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